Scientists Working to Develop Clever Nasal Spray That Tricks the Coronavirus Out of the Body

Biochemist Longxing Cao is working with colleagues at the University of Washington on promising research to disable infectious coronavirus in a person's nose.


Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.

Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.

This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.

This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.

When the pandemic first hit and the state of California issued a lockdown order on March 16, postdoctoral researchers Anum and Jeff Glasgow found themselves stuck at home with nothing to do. The two scientists who study bioengineering felt that they were well equipped to research molecular ways of disabling coronavirus's cell-penetrating spike protein, but they could no longer come to their labs at the University of California San Francisco.

"We were upset that no one put us in the game," says Anum Glasgow. "We have a lot of experience between us doing these types of projects so we wanted to contribute." But they still had computers so they began modeling the potential virus-disabling proteins in silico using Robetta, special software for designing and modeling protein structures, developed and maintained by University of Washington biochemist David Baker and his lab.

"We saw some imperfections in that lock and key and we created something better. We made a 10 times tighter adhesive."

The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 uses its surface spike protein to bind on to a specific receptor on human cells called ACE2. Unfortunately for humans, the spike protein's molecular shape fits the ACE2 receptor like a well-cut key, making it very successful at breaking into our cells. But if one could design a molecular ACE2-mimic to "trick" the virus into latching onto it instead, the virus would no longer be able to enter cells. Scientists call such mimics receptor traps or inhibitors, or blockers. "It would block the adhesive part of the virus that binds to human cells," explains Jim Wells, professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at UCSF, whose lab took part in designing the ACE2-receptor mimic, working with the Glasgows and other colleagues.

The idea of disabling infectious or inflammatory agents by tricking them into binding to the targets' molecular look-alikes is something scientists have tried with other diseases. The anti-inflammatory drugs commonly used to treat autoimmune conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, rely on conceptually similar molecular mechanisms. Called TNF blockers, these drugs block the activity of the inflammatory cytokines, molecules that promote inflammation. "One of the biggest selling drugs in the world is a receptor trap," says Jeff Glasgow. "It acts as a receptor decoy. There's a TNF receptor that traps the cytokine."

In the recent past, scientists also pondered a similar look-alike approach to treating urinary tract infections, which are often caused by a pathogenic strain of Escherichia coli. An E. coli bacterium resembles a squid with protruding filaments equipped with proteins that can change their shape to form hooks, used to hang onto specific sugar molecules called ligands, which are present on the surface of the epithelial cells lining the urinary tract.

A recent study found that a sugar-like compound that's structurally similar to that ligand can play a similar trick on the E. Coli. When administered in in sufficient amounts, the compound hooks the bacteria on, which is then excreted out of the body with urine. The "trickster" method had been also tried against the HIV virus, but it wasn't very effective because HIV has a high mutation rate and multiple ways of entering human cells.

But the coronavirus spike protein's shape is more stable. And while it has a strong affinity for the ACE2 receptors, its natural binding to these receptors isn't perfect, which allowed the UCSF researchers to design a mimic with a better grip. "We saw some imperfections in that lock and key and we created something better," says Wells. "We made a 10 times tighter adhesive." The team demonstrated that their traps neutralized SARS-CoV-2 in lab experiments and published their study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Baker, who is the director of the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington, was also devising ACE2 look-alikes with his team. Only unlike the UCSF team, they didn't perfect the virus-receptor lock and key combo, but instead designed their mimics from scratch. Using Robetta, they digitally modeled over two million proteins, zeroed-in on over 100,000 potential candidates and identified a handful with a strong promise of blocking SARS-CoV-2, testing them against the virus in human cells. Their design of the miniprotein inhibitors was published in the journal Science.

Biochemist David Baker, pictured in his lab at the University of Washington.


The concept of the ACE2 receptor mimics is somewhat similar to the antibody plasma, but better, the teams explain. Antibodies don't always coat all of the virus's spike proteins and sometimes don't bind perfectly. By contrast, the ACE2 mimics directly compete with the virus's entry mechanism. ACE2 mimics are also easier and cheaper to make, researchers say.

Antibodies, which are long protein chains, must be grown inside mammalian cells, which is a slow and costly process. As drugs, antibody cocktails must be kept refrigerated. On the contrary, proteins that mimic ACE2 receptors are smaller and can be produced by bacteria easily and inexpensively. Designed to specs, these proteins don't need refrigeration and are easy to store. "We designed them to be very stable," says Baker. "Our computation design tries to come up with the stable proteins that have the desired functions."

That stability may allow the team to create an inhaler drug rather than an intravenous one, which would be another advantage over the antibody plasma, given via an IV. The team envisions people spraying the miniprotein solution into their nose, creating a protecting coating that would disable the inhaled virus. "The infection starts from your respiratory system, from your nose," explains Longxing Cao, the study's co-author—so a nasal spray would be a natural way to administer it. "So that you can have it like a layer, similar to a mask."

As the virus evolves, new variants are arising. But the teams think that their ACE2 protein mimics should work on the new variants too for several reasons. "Since the new SARS-CoV-2 variants still use ACE2 for their cell entry, they will likely still be susceptible to ACE2-based traps," Glasgow says.

Cao explains that their approach should work too because most of the mutations happen outside the ACE2 binding region. Plus, they are building multiple binders that can bind to an array of the coronavirus variants. "Our binder can still bind with most of the variants and we are trying to make one protein that could inhibit all the future escape variants," he says.

Baker and Cao hope that their miniproteins may be available to patients later this year. But besides getting the medicine out to patients, this approach will allow researchers to test the computer-modeled mimics end-to-end with an unprecedented speed. That would give humans a leg up in future pandemics or zoonotic disease outbreaks, which remain an increasingly pressing threat due to human activity and climate change.

"That's what we are focused on right now—understanding what we have learned from this pandemic to improve our design methods," says Baker. "So that we should be able to obtain binders like these very quickly when a new pandemic threat is identified."

Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on and @linazeldovich.
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The White House in Washington, D.C.


This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

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Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.

On left, people excitedly line up for Salk's polio vaccine in 1957; on right, Joe Biden gets one of the COVID vaccines on December 21, 2020.

Wikimedia Commons and Biden's Twitter

On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.

The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.

Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.

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