How the ‘dark matter’ of biology can help us tackle Covid-19

18 Nov 2020

Dr Elisa Fadda, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, Maynooth University. Image: Dr Elisa Fadda

Dr Elisa Fadda of Maynooth University believes the mysterious and complex world of glycoscience can be used to learn more about Covid-19.

After obtaining her joint undergraduate and master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Cagliari in Sardinia, Italy, Dr Elisa Fadda travelled to Montreal to complete a PhD in theoretical chemistry.

Between 2004 and 2008 she completed her first postdoctoral position in Toronto at The Hospital for Sick Children. Then, in 2008, Fadda moved to Ireland and worked as a research fellow in the School of Chemistry at NUI Galway. In 2013, she moved to Maynooth University where she is now an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, based in the Hamilton Institute.

‘The current pandemic has opened a whole new page in the glycoscience book’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As a young child I was very inquisitive, and always had an interest in the world around me – especially insects and reptiles in the garden at home in Italy. I truly developed an interest in all things science around the age of 10, when I became completely enamoured with medicine and in particular with the human heart.

I dreamt about becoming a heart surgeon, but my interests changed a few years later when my dad enrolled me in a computer programming school. That was the moment I really discovered the world of computing and the role it can play in science.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

In computational biophysics, we use high-performance computing – with computers that are so large they fill rooms – to simulate the behaviour of biomolecules in real time. We are particularly interested in how biomolecules move and interact with each other.

In my lab, we are specifically interested in computational glycoscience. Our research is focused on understanding how carbohydrate-mediated interactions affect the cell health and disease at the molecular level – for example, how do these lead to viral infection?

My team is based in the Hamilton Institute in Maynooth University, and I currently have three PhD students. However, we are joined throughout the year by undergraduate students running their fourth-year projects.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Right now, we have seen how crucial this research is in the fight against Covid-19. The current pandemic has opened a whole new page in the glycoscience book and has renewed an interest which perhaps was not there before.

Our research with colleagues at the University of California San Diego has provided, for the first time ever, detailed insights into the weaknesses and strengths of the fusion spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

We have provided insight into the biomolecular world at the atom level, which would otherwise be unattainable by any other means of investigation. Our results indicate key vulnerabilities of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that can be targeted specifically for the rapid development of highly effective therapeutic strategies.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Computational glycoscience has lots of different direct applications, but it is a basic science, seeking fundamental discoveries and not necessarily aimed at immediate, singular applications. Therefore, our interactions with industry and our engagement with the wider community takes place very often in a layered manner.

We are essentially at the very bottom of the pyramid of the development of pharmaceuticals. We provide the crucial layer of knowledge that can, for example, speed up advancements in drug design and development. Without our work and insight, these advances would not be possible.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Securing funding remains the biggest challenge. Often, the problem with basic research is that is can be poorly funded compared to applied research areas.

Sometimes funding is easier to get if you have industry partners, but that can be quite difficult, especially for groups who are just beginning and not yet established.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Glycobiology has always been the ‘dark matter’ of biology. It is viewed by many as being too complex and mysterious, however its importance has been underlined by the Covid-19 pandemic and, as such, this is helping to elevate it as a research area.

It is easier to illustrate its relevance and importance, which we hope will encourage other researchers at a global level.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would love to see an emphasis on basic science and further appreciation across society as a whole. If we reflect on what type of discoveries have triggered the rapid development in diagnostics, vaccines and preventative measures in the last six months, it’s all based on knowledge we have gathered over many years on how basic, fundamental science works.

Much has been done, however I believe there is a real opportunity to encourage a diversity of study and research that informs all fields.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.