Caltech scientist's technique helps provide detailed images of coronavirus in race for vaccine

PASADENA, Calif. (KABC) -- One of the key tools in the race to develop a cure or vaccine for coronavirus stems from techniques developed by a Caltech researcher decades ago.

Caltech biologist Alasdair McDowall is a pioneer in the field of cryo-electron microscopy.

The technique allows scientists to see the most accurate and detailed images of the virus in three dimensions and to examine closely those traits which make it infectious.

The images that the public has seen of what exactly the novel coronavirus looks like at the molecular level were made possible in part by the technique.

Previous electron microscope techniques involved a greater degree of altering the cells being studied. As an analogy it was like trying to study the cells of a ripe tomato by looking at sun-dried pieces. It's just not the same.

"It is crucial to designing a new drug," says McDowall.

Vaccine must be precision-built to defeat the virus' sneakiest and deadliest traits.

A pioneer in the field of cryo-electron microscopy, McDowall's findings 40 years ago paved the way for research that went on to win a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2017.

McDowall found a way of preparing biological matter so it would maintain its life-like state even under a high-vacuum electron microscope. Today it allows researchers to capture highly detailed images of viruses.

"In our cryo-electron microscopy lab we can see the structure of the whole virus inside and outside. This is the beauty of our freezing technology we developed, that we are seeing the whole volume of the virus in three dimensions," says McDowall.

Today there is an accelerating demand for cryo-EM microscopes around the world and a vigorous effort at Caltech to train people in how to use them.
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