Glowing viruses allow San Antonio researchers to track how COVID-19 spreads in real time

Hundreds of labs worldwide requesting Texas Biomed team’s new research

SAN ANTONIO – A team of scientists at Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio is doing such important work with the viruses that cause COVID-19 that hundreds of other teams worldwide are requesting to use their research.

By making viruses glow in the dark and watching them move in real-time, researchers could speed up the process of creating new COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.

“With these florescent viruses, you can easily identify if a cell is infected or not,” said Dr. Luis Martinez-Sobrido, a virologist at Texas Biomed.

Glowing viruses allow San Antonio researchers to track how COVID-19 spreads in real time (Texas Biomed)

Martinez-Sobrido leads the team at Texas Biomed that successfully modified the virus to glow brightly in cells and animal tissue, allowing them to track the spread and intensity as it happens.

In his lab, Martinez-Sobrido pulled up an image in a microscope of a gray cluster of cells containing the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the one that causes COVID-19. It would typically take researchers a long time to figure out which of the cells are infected. Then, he clicked a button, and the same cluster of cells lit up green, with specks showing up in neon.

“Those are the viruses,” Martinez-Sobrido said of the neon specks.

Glowing viruses allow San Antonio researchers to track how COVID-19 spreads in real time (Texas Biomed)

With this incredible research, he can now identify what cells and organs are targeted by the virus. The team can also track these fluorescent viruses in mice and hamsters and has already watched the virus target the lungs.

They use different fluorescent colors for each variant. The bright green screen showed the original SARS-CoV-2 variant. Then, on the other side of the lab, he showed a screen over Petri dishes with the South African variant glowing in red.

“We have cells that are infected with both at the same time,” Martinez-Sobrido explained, allowing them to compare two variants in the same cell or animal simultaneously.

The research team is also beginning to work with the highly infectious Delta variant. Watching how these different variants attack cells will help researchers quickly develop possible anti-viral medications and more powerful vaccines.

Glowing viruses allow San Antonio researchers to track how COVID-19 spreads in real time (Texas Biomed)

“This current vaccine targets one protein in the virus, the spike, or the protein that the virus uses to enter the cells. We would have multiple targets that the immune system would be able to go after and provide not only antibodies but also T-cell responses,” Martinez-Sobrido said.

“Another one of the things we are very interested in is monoclonal antibodies isolated from humans that can be used for people that are high risk or cannot get the vaccines or do not respond to the vaccines. It happened recently to Colin Powell. He got the vaccine, but he has cancer in the B cells, so he could not produce antibodies,” he said.

Tracking the virus in real-time in the same animal reduces the number of animals needed in the studies. It also saves resources, which is crucial now with a strained supply chain for basic materials.

The groundbreaking research is in high demand.

“We have over 100-200 requests from all over the world. This is the most powerful tool in modern biology, not just for SARS-CoV-2 but for other viruses,” Martinez-Sobrido said.

The local team is proud to be fueling the science that will inevitably save lives all over the globe.


KSAT Explains: The COVID-19 research done in San Antonio

About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.

Misael started at KSAT-TV as a photojournalist in 1987.