Experimental nasal spray could provide temporary protection against Covid-19

    A transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (in gold) in endosomes of a highly infected nasal olfactory epithelial cell.

A transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (in gold) in endosomes of a highly infected nasal olfactory epithelial cell.
Photo: NIH / NAID / IMAGE.FR / BSIP / Universal Images Group (Getty Images)

This is what researchers in Finland say they have created a new nasal spray treatment that can provide short but effective protection against coronavirus and its many variants, including Omicron. In a recent preliminary study of cells in a petri dish as well as mice, it appeared that the nasal spray was blocking the virus from infecting cells up to eight hours after a dose. But more research would must be done before we could expect this therapy to reach humans.

The experimental nasal spray is being developed by researchers at the University of Helsinki, and it relies on a slightly different approach to coronavirus control than other methods.

“Its prophylactic use is intended to protect against SARS-CoV-2 infection,” p.study author Kalle Saksela told Gizmodo in an email. “But it is not a vaccine, nor is it intended as an alternative to vaccines, but rather as a supplement to vaccination to provide additional protection to successfully vaccinated individuals in high-risk situations, and especially for immunocompromised individuals – for example, those receiving immunosuppressive therapy. “

Vaccines work by training the immune system to recognize a germ without causing disease, which then allows us to produce our own natural supply of antibodies and immune cells specifically tudown to that germ if it shows up in the future. We have also been able to mass-produce antibodies in the laboratory against coronavirus, known as monoclonal antibodies, which can be given to humans right after an exposure. The Helsinki team’s treatment, however, is one synthetic protein that is much smaller than an antibody but one that can still recognize and bind to the virus’ tip protein. To further enhance the potential of the protein, the three of them merged into a single package.

In theory, these antibody-like molecules can proactively inhibit any coronavirus they come in contact with from successfully infecting cells, at least for a short time. The ability to deliver the treatment as a nasal spray also means that these bodyguards can be sent directly into the upper respiratory tract, where most SARS-CoV-2 infections begin. Saksela, virologist at University of Helsinki, is careful to note that treatment is not intended to replace vaccines or other drugs.

In their research, published as a pre-print late last month (meaning it has not been peer reviewed), Saksela and colleagues describe how they tested the spray on pseudovirus, similar to different variants of coronavirus, both when trying to infect cells in a petri dish as well as in living mouse.

Omicron has become one major problem mainly because its many mutations allow it to partially escape recognition from the natural and laboratory-produced antibodies; created against the original strain of coronavirus. But the team’s molecule is apparently targeted at a region of the coronavirus peak protein that mutates very little. Ideally, this would mean that even Omicron could not easily escape inhibition.

At least that was in the lab what Saksela and his team found. Whether it was Omicron, Delta or the original SARS-CoV-2, the virus was stopped from infecting cells when even a modest dose of the spray was administered. And in mice exposed to the Beta variant of the virus, treated mice were much less likely to have any viral presence in their entire upper respiratory tract and lungs than a control group, with protection up to eight timer after a dose. The treatment also appeared to be safe and not associated with any noticeable damage.

Of course, this is all basic research that has not yet undergone the full peer review process. So while the results are certainly encouraging, time will tell if their spray can work the same magic in humans. Should their work continue to show promise, however, Saksela believes the spray will be valuable even after the pandemic phase of covid-19 is completed.

“This technology is cheap and very manufacturable, and the inhibitor works equally well against all varieties,” he said. “It also works against nu-extinct SARS virus, so it may well also act as an emergency measure against possible new coronaviruses (SARS-CoV-3 and -4).

Saksela does not know how long it may take spray to reach clinical trials and from there to reach the market. He notices spray can be considered as either a drug or medical device, depending on a country’s regulatory process, which will further affect any timeline for development. But aside from continuing to work on a covid-19 treatment, the team might next time try to develop a similar spray for other respiratory infections.

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