- A team of researchers at Ohio State University has developed small protein fragments that can block the new coronavirus from infecting cells, and could become a possible COVID-19 treatment that can be administered by anyone.
- Like the neutralizing antibodies that result from a coronavirus infection or vaccination, the peptides bind to the spike protein, preventing the virus from attaching to ACE2 receptors and infecting cells.
- The peptides could be used to develop a nasal spray that would prevent the virus from infecting cells in the nasal cavity and lungs, as well as other drugs that could block the spike protein of the virus.
The new coronavirus vaccines licensed for emergency use at this time serve the same purpose and work in a similar way, regardless of the underlying technology. Vaccines must prevent severe COVID-19 and death, and phase 3 trials have shown that various drugs can achieve this with varying degrees of efficacy. But that means that a vaccinated person can still get the virus. The coronavirus can still replicate inside the nose and try to bind to lung cells. But the vaccine will train the immune system to prevent the virus from infecting cells, reducing the pathogen’s ability to harm the body. The vaccines target the spike protein of the virus, teaching the immune system to produce mass neutralizing antibodies that can prevent it from binding to ACE2 receptors on cells.
Vaccines can be adapted to cope with new mutations, as is the case with the flu vaccine that is updated every year. But if this new nasal spray works as well as the researchers claim, there could be other ways to prevent the virus from damaging your body.
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Researchers at Ohio State University studied the chemical links between the coronavirus and the ACE2 receptor found on the outside of cells in the nose, lungs and other organs to understand how the two “shake hands.” The coronavirus has to infect cells to survive. To do that, it binds to the ACE2 receptor and then takes over the chemical plant within the cell to replicate. His offspring leave the dying cell with the mission of infecting other cells. This happens repeatedly until the immune system steps in to stop the virus and remove debris, including dead cells.
After analyzing the coronavirus-ACE2 binding, the researchers created protein fragments called peptides that may appear to the virus as a part of the ACE2 receptor. These peptides would bind to the peak protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, preventing the virus from infecting cells. This process is similar to how neutralizing antibodies work. Antibodies are proteins that the immune system makes after exposure to the virus or after vaccination. They will also inhibit the same spike protein. The difference between them is that the immune system will produce more antibodies for months after infection or vaccination, maybe years. Peptides should be applied to the respiratory system with the help of a nasal spray. But that might be enough to prevent the virus from multiplying.
Avoiding replication would reduce the viral load in an infected person. This would also reduce the risk of complications and death, and could speed recovery. Additionally, by reducing the viral load in the lungs and nose, this potential coronavirus treatment could reduce the likelihood that an infected person will transmit the disease to others.
“Our goal is that every time SARS-CoV-2 comes into contact with peptides, the virus is inactivated. This is because the spike protein of the virus is already attached to something that it needs to use to bind to the cell, ”said study co-lead author Amit Sharma in a statement. “To do this, we have to get to the virus while it is still outside the cell.”
Sharma and his team analyzed images of the coronavirus spike protein and the ACE2 receptor, zooming in on the regions where the two elements interact. After understanding the chemical connections, they turned to the spiral ribbon tail of the ACE2 receptor to engineer the peptides.
“Most of the peptides we design are based on the tape-to-spike contact,” Sharma said. “We are focused on creating the shortest possible peptides with the minimum of essential contacts.”
The team tested various peptides in laboratory tests and found that two of the candidates effectively reduced infection compared to the control groups. These peptides can be used to develop other substances that can neutralize the virus, not just COVID-19 treatments like nasal sprays. They could be incorporated into aerosol surface disinfectants, which would neutralize the virus even before it reaches the human body.
Sharma and his team will now focus on developing aspects of their coronavirus inhibitors for therapeutic purposes. The researchers will also test their peptides against emerging mutations of the virus. Clinical trials will be needed to validate the efficacy of this potential coronavirus treatment in humans before any drug related to COVID-19 can be made available to the general public.
The Ohio State University study can be viewed at Bioconjugate chemistry.
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