To date, the primary focus in managing the COVID-19 virus has involved more traditional strategies. Numerous companies are aggressively pursuing a coronavirus vaccination. Likewise, several new approaches to treatment including monoclonal antibodies are in experimental trials. In both of these cases, science and technology are targeting the body’s immune system for help. Vaccines boost immunity to COVID-19 through small dose or viral particle exposures. Immune therapies attempt to use immune techniques against someone already infected. But interestingly, it may be a completely different technique that ultimately provides a simpler and better answer.
Some of the latest research involving COVID-19 management involves management involves a more structural approach. Using substances called synthetic proteins, scientists are developing therapies that block the COVID-19 virus from ever infected the body’s cells. In essence, these substances disrupt the virus’ attack system before it has a chance to cause an infection. And the best part is that many of these can be administered easily as an anti-COVID nasal spray or inhaler. While the long-term goal will still involve vaccines and better treatments, these new discoveries could be a real game changer in fighting the pandemic.
“Having something new that works against the coronavirus is exciting. I could imagine this being part of the arsenal.” – Arturo Casadevall, M.D., PhD., Chairman of Immunology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
What Are Synthetic Proteins?
As the name implies, synthetic proteins are man-made proteins that are designed to achieve a specific purpose. In the case of COVID-19, these synthetic proteins ideally target and disrupt the virus, preventing it from being infectious. The problem in the past has always been trying to match a protein’s structure with the intended goal. Hundreds of thousands of synthetic proteins can be made, and determining which ones actually work is challenging. But that has changed in the last 5 years. With the assistance of computers and data algorithms, scientists are better able to identify specific structures most likely to work.
Using technology and data analysis, scientists can now narrow down the potential number of effective proteins to a smaller number. These can then be manufactured in the lab and tests in cell cultures. In terms of the coronavirus, cells are provided with different synthetic proteins in cultures and exposes to the virus. The synthetic proteins that protect cells from being infected notably have potential as an Anti-COVID preventative. In essence, the advances in technology have greatly accelerated the process of finding which proteins might be effective. And once known, these can be further tested in animal and clinical trials.
“But with COVID-19, there is a clear, huge challenge facing humanity, and if synthetic biology can contribute with new solutions and new therapies, people will easily see the need for it.” – Beat Christen, PhD., Professor, Institute of Molecular Systems Biology, Zurich
Ferrets and an Anti-COVID Nasal Spray
While several university labs are exploring synthetic proteins in cell cultures, a recent study has already shown success in animals. The study involved a collaboration between Columbia University, Cornell University, and Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. Ferrets, known to be susceptible to COVID-19 and pass it to other ferrets via aerosolized droplets, were the animals used. In three separate cages, 2 ferrets received an anti-COVID nasal spray that contained a small protein. Then, 3 additional ferrets were placed in the cages. Of these, 2 ferrets had received a placebo nasal spray, and the other was infected with COVID-19. In all 3 groups, the placebo ferrets acquired COVID-19, but none of the ones receiving the anti-COVID nasal spray did.
The anti-COVID nasal spray developed by the researchers contained a small lipopeptide. This tiny protein had an amino acid chain similar to the one located in the spikes of a coronavirus particle. Once the coronavirus spike opened and attempted to attach to nasal or respiratory cells, the lipopeptide inserted itself. As a result, the spike’s mechanism was disabled, and it was unable to infect cells with its RNA. Though this was a small trial, the results are highly promising. Not only is this anti-COVID nasal spray inexpensive, but is can be shipped as a powder anywhere without refrigeration. Plus, its effects appear to last 24 hours, which means a single administration a day could be completely protective.
“If [the anti-COVID nasal spray] works this well in humans, you could sleep in a bed with someone infected or be with your infected kids and still be safe.” Anne Moscona, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics and Microbiologist, Columbia University
Other Promising Anti-COVID Nasal Spray and Inhalant Therapies
Work with synthetic proteins could well lead to an effective anti-COVID nasal spray in the near future. The researchers in the ferret study tested their lipopeptide against all 4 strains of coronavirus. In each case, it was effective in cell cultures. Given their success, it is likely that other university labs will be offering similar breakthroughs. In fact, the University of Washington has invested in the investigation of such synthetic proteins as well. To date, they have identified 7 “mini-protein” inhibitors that might also serve as an anti-COVID nasal spray.
Other labs are exploring anti-COVID nasal sprays and inhalants using different substances. For example, Australian scientists are examining an anti-COVID nasal spray that boost the immune system. At the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, they are investigating llama antibody particles in this fight against COVID-19. Called “nanobodies,” these particles have been found to be exceptionally potent in preventing coronavirus infections. As an anti-COVID nasal spray of inhalant, these nanoparticles could protect the entire respiratory tract.
“It’s really good to have multiple ways, to have multiple interventions, in development. It just takes time to get things into the pipeline to be used therapeutically.’” – Paul Duprex, PhD., Director of Vaccine Research, University of Pittsburgh
A Multifaceted Strategy Against Coronavirus
In all likelihood, a single magic vaccination will not be the likely solution to this pandemic. Instead, most experts believe a multifaceted approach will be needed. This will hopefully include vaccinations. But it will also include more effective disease treatments and other preventative measures. An anti-COVID nasal spray or inhalant using synthetic proteins may be such an adjunctive measure. The question now is how quickly can these therapies move to clinical trials. Given the rise in COVID-19 cases, this cannot happen soon enough.
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