News and Commentary

Nasal Spray Could Offer Protection Against COVID-19, Scientists Say

"Molecule is among most powerful COVID-19 antivirals yet discovered."
White container of spray bottle on black background. Hand holds medical inhaler
Taizhan Sakimbaev / EyeEm / Getty Images

Researchers at the University of California in San Francisco say that a nasal spray could help stem the spread of COVID-19.

The team, led by graduate student Michael Schoof, has manufactured synthetic antibodies that “straitjackets the crucial SARS-CoV-2 machinery that allows the virus to infect our cells,” according to a report on the university’s website.

“A paper posted on the preprint server bioRxiv says experiments using the live virus show the molecule is among the most powerful COVID-19 antivirals yet discovered,” the New York Post reported.

The synthetic antibodies, called AeroNabs, can be sprayed into the nostrils once a day. “Because it’s so stable we can essentially put in one of these, this is a little nebulizer,” said Dr. Aashish Manglik, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at UCSF. “It’s effectively a really effective mousetrap. It binds to one of these spike proteins and never lets go.”

Manglik said the AeroNabs’ makeup can be traced back to tiny molecules first discovered in camels called nanobodies. The AeroNabs can be manipulated to perform set tasks, in this case attaching themselves to the spike proteins in the coronavirus. “Nanobodies disable spikes and prevent infection,” the findings said.

“Though they function much like the antibodies found in the human immune system, nanobodies offer a number of unique advantages for effective therapeutics against SARS-CoV-2,” he said. “[N]anobodies were just the starting point for us. Though appealing on their own, we thought we could improve upon them through protein engineering. This eventually led to the development of AeroNabs.”

Here’s how they work, according to ABC-7 in San Francisco:

The UCSF team poured through roughly two billion synthetic nanobodies, before they found the best candidate. Then they re-engineered it to be even more potent. Knowing the COVID virus uses its spikes to attach itself to a specific part of the lung cell called an Ace2 receptor, they worked to stop the invasion in its tracks. When AeroNabs bind to the spike protein, the virus can’t attach itself to the receptor and loses its ability to infect cells.

The spray would work better than masks and gloves and provide more time for a vaccine to be created, the scientists said.

“Far more effective than wearable forms of personal protective equipment [PPE], we think of AeroNabs as a molecular form of PPE that could serve as an important stopgap until vaccines provide a more permanent solution to COVID-19,” said AeroNabs co-inventor Peter Walter, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

“For those who cannot access or don’t respond to SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, Walter added, AeroNabs could be a more permanent line of defense against COVID-19,” the university said on its website.

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