Microscopic images show how the virus hijacks a cell and changes its purpose.

Researchers have been trying to learn everything they can about the novel coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19. A team led by scientists from the University of California released new information from a study published on June 28 in the Journal Cell, and what they shared is, in a word, terrifying.

It seems that cells infected with COVID-19 will grow tentacle-like structures that effectively reaches out to infect other cells. This discovery explains, in part, how the virus can spread so rapidly within the body. This is referred to by experts as filopodia and is not something new to researchers, as they're part of many cellular processes.

It's rather brutal: the virus essentially takes control of the cells through enzymes known as kinases, which work as a master regulator of many of the cell’s processes—including metabolism, growth, and repair. Then, the virus can seize control of these enzymes and instruct the cell to begin forming the elongated growths. The virus then takes control of that cell, and the infection spreads.

So, to put that in simpler terms, the virus is able to take over other cells; make them into a "zombie," of sorts; instruct the cell to grow long enough protrusions to reach other cells; and take over them with the virus.

Cell infected with COVID-19
Scanning electron microscope image of a cell infected with COVID-19. Image Credit Dr. Elizabeth Fischer of NIAID/NIH).

The lead author of the study, Dr. Mehdi Bouhaddou of Gladstone Institutes and the University of California San Francisco, explains the process,

“Viruses are unable to replicate and spread on their own: they need an organism to carry, replicate, and transmit them to further hosts. To facilitate this process, viruses need to take control of their host cell’s machinery and manipulate it to produce new viral particles. Sometimes, this hijacking interferes with the activity of the host’s enzymes and other proteins. Once a protein is produced, enzymes can change its activity by making chemical modifications to its structure.”

Researchers have found this process in many other deadly viruses, and though the description of it is horrifying, it can be viewed as good news. The authors of this study were able to identify 87 drugs already approved by the Food and Drug Administration that can target a cell’s kinases, and possibly help stop COVID-19 from taking over the controls. 

This new knowledge could help further research and treatment of coronavirus, and hopefully, aid in the development of a vaccine, which is of paramount importance to researchers and doctors around the world.