How can X-ray technology help in Covid research?

  • Watch the report by ITV Meridian's Juliette Fletcher

Scientists at Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire have been involved in more than 60 projects about coronavirus.

The team have been working with global experts to study the makeup of the virus, using specialist X-ray technology.The site in Didcot is home to one of the World's most advanced synchrotron research facilities.

Professor Sir Dave Stuart, Life Sciences Director says coronavirus is the most intensively studied virus in the history of mankind.

He says: "It was only in January 2020 that we knew anything about the virus and it was identified. The genetic sequence of the virus was published from China and there was a tremendous burst of activity, which carries on."

  • Professor Sir Dave Stuart, Life Sciences Director:

The synchrotron is at the centre of a lot of research at Diamond Light Source.

It works like a giant microscope and the machine speeds up electrons until they give off light 10 billion times brighter than the sun.

The scientists can use these light beams to study all manner of things like the structure of a virus or new medicines and treatments.

The synchrotron is used by scientists from all over the UK and researchers from King’s College London have used X-ray imaging to investigate why lateral flow tests underperform. 

They discovered the tests themselves are highly accurate but a positive result is not always visible to the naked eye.

  •  Dr Alex Morrell, Lateral flow researcher:

Professor Frank von Delft, Principal Beamline Scientist, is co-founder of the Moonshot project, which is a collaboration of expertise from all over the world.  

Thanks to the light beam work at Diamond, chemists now know the virus' weak spots and can work on developing a new anti-viral drug.

Frank von Delft says they had a lot of research and put out notices on bulletin boards asking scientists for ideas for what they could do with the data.

He says this was the early stage of a long discovery process and they had hundreds of people come back with thoughts for their experimental work.

  • Professor Frank von Delft, Principal Beamline Scientist:

The main Covid research at Diamond Light Source uses a technique called crystallography.

A sample to be studied is crystallised and then placed on a beam line. The resulting images can show scientists how drugs or antibodies interact with the virus.

Professor Laurent Chapon, Director of Physical Science, says they are using beams of x-rays that are a trillion times more intense, which is what separates their work from the likes of Rosalind Franklin and Crick and Watson, in the 1950s when studying the structure of DNA.

It's hoped this method will give a better chance to find candidate drugs because it gives the scientists the capability to screen a large number of compounds.

  • Professor Laurent Chapon, Director of Physical Science:

Scientists and researchers working at Diamond Light Source will hopefully pave the way to finding new treatments for coronavirus, just as they have discovered more about the virus and the way the vaccines work.