EVANSTON, Ill. — A new nasal spray which can protect people from ALL variants of COVID-19 is heading for human clinical trials. Researchers say the groundbreaking treatment contains “potent” proteins which target the virus’s weak spots and prevents it from infecting human cells.
Some treatments, including vaccines, have become less effective at combating COVID as the virus continues to evolve and mutate. Scientists recently halted several antibody treatments in the United States after they failed to protect people against the BA.2 Omicron subvariant. The treatments are also expensive to develop and require complex refrigerated supply chains.
Now, however, American scientists have come up with a simpler solution to combat the virus which has killed over six million people worldwide to date. The new treatment heads to human clinical trials after showing promising results in rodents.
Targeting all of COVID’s weak points at once
The researchers used a supercomputer to design proteins which target “vulnerable sites” on the surface of COVID-19. The proteins, dubbed minibinders, were reengineered to make them even more potent against COVID’s spike protein. They targeted COVID’s “infectious machinery” in three places rather than one, making the drug far less likely to detach than other treatments.
Professor Michael Jewett, from the University of Washington School of Medicine, explains that SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein has three binding domains, and common antibody therapies may only block one.
“SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein has three binding domains, and common antibody therapies may only block one,” Jewett says in a university release. “Our minibinders sit on top of the spike protein like a tripod and block all three. The interaction between the spike protein and our antiviral is among the tightest interactions known in biology. When we put the spike protein and our antiviral therapeutic in a test tube together for a week, they stayed connected and never fell apart.”
Blocking the viral ‘handshake’
The nasal spray reduced COVID symptoms and prevented infections in tests involving mice. Specifically, the proteins prevented COVID from binding to the ACE2 receptor on the surface of cells — the entry point for infecting the body.
Scientists explain that COVID cannot infect the body without binding to these receptors, which suggests the treatment will work against new variants.
“To enter the body, the spike protein and ACE2 receptor engage in a handshake,” Jewett says. “Our antiviral blocks this handshake and, as a bonus, has resistance to viral escape.”
The virus-hunting proteins could offer an alternative to vaccines which have proven difficult to develop and require a healthcare professional to administer. Study authors can also produce the proteins on a large scale in microorganisms like E. coli, making them far more cost-effective to manufacture and more stable in higher temperatures.
There is also a high chance people will be able to self-administer the treatment using a one-time nasal spray. It could therefore be available in pharmacies as a preventative measure to treat infections, the researchers conclude.
Nasal sprays available this year?
This isn’t the only COVID nasal spray that’s rapidly heading for production. A previous report in March revealed that a successful nasal spray which can treat patients with the virus could be available by the end of 2022.
The spray works in a similar way to this treatment, blocking COVID’s spike protein from infecting human cells and keeping the virus from spreading in patients who already have the illness.
The new findings are published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.