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Texas Biomed researchers are making COVID-19 glow in the dark. Here's why.

The achievement will speed development of COVID-19 treatments. Until now, scientists haven't been able to literally see if their ideas were working in real time.

SAN ANTONIO — Scientists at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute have developed a method to make the coronavirus glow under a microscope. 

Luis Martinez-Sobrido and his team replicated the virus with an altered gene that makes infected cells light up. This "reporter virus" will allow scientists to speed up development of COVID-19 treatments. 

"One of the limitations to studying viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, is that we need tools to detect the presence of the virus," he said. 

The virus is microscopic, meaning researchers must usually rely on indicators other than appearance to verify its presence. 

If infected cells glow under a microscope, doctors can more easily and immediately determine whether experimental treatments are effective. 

"If you have a compound that inhibits the virus, you will not see fluorescent cells," Martinez-Sobrido said. "If the compound or the drug does not inhibit the virus, then the virus will be able to infect and glow." 

"In an hour, you could screen thousands on thousands of drugs or antibodies," he continued. 

Researchers will also be able to track the virus in the human body. Texas BioMed is currently infecting animals with reporter viruses to determine which cells COVID-19 attacks first. 

Understanding what organs the disease targets will help pharmaceutical companies develop better defenses and anti-viral medications. 

Ensuing research could explain, for example, why some sick people lose their sense of taste or smell. 

The Texas BioMed team can also color-code SARS-CoV-2 variants, allowing scientists to test vaccine effectiveness against emerging types of COVID-19. 

Martinez-Sobrido says his lab is sending versions of its reporter viruses to other facilities to use for their own research purposes. 

"We have dozens of requests from multiple labs," he said. "When we found out the pandemic was going to be so serious, we all stopped all of our previous research with other viruses and started working with SARS-Cov-2."