CHICAGO (CBS) -- A possible breakthrough coronavirus treatment has been developed by scientists at the University of Chicago.
Put simply, it works by setting a trap.
A coronavirus Nanotrap is a microscopic particle with a surface that mimics the cells to which coronaviruses usually attach.
Once they take the bait, they are trapped and can't do any harm. The immune system then destroys them.
Professor Jun Huang of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the U of C led the research.
"Since the pandemic began, our research team has been developing this new way to treat COVID-19," Huang said in a news release. "We have done rigorous testing to prove that these Nanotraps work, and we are excited about their potential."
To design the Nanotrap, a research team led by postdoctoral scholar Min Chen and graduate student Jill Rosenberg examined the spike protein on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. The spike protein binds to ACE2 receptor proteins on human cells.
The research team designed nanoparticles that have their own ACE2 particles on their surface, and others with neutralizing antibodies. Both ACE2 proteins and antibodies have been used before in treatments for COVID-19, but the nonparticles create a more robust system to trap and eliminate the virus.
The researchers tested the Nanotraps against a pseudovirus – which is less potent than the real virus and does not replicate – using human lung cells in tissue culture plates. The result was that the Nanptraps completely blocked the pseudovirus from entering the cells.
Once the pseudovirus bound itself to the nanoparticle – about 10 minutes after injection – the nanoparticles used a molecule that sent the body's immune macrophages to engulf and degrade them. Macrophages usually consume nanoparticles within the body, buy the Nanotrap molecule speeds up the process.
Researchers also tested the nanoparticles in a pair of donated lungs that are kept alive with a ventilator – called an ex vivo lung perfusion system – and found they completely blocked infection in the lungs.
They also collaborated with researchers at Argonne National Laboratory to test Nanotraps with live virus in an in vitro system, and found the Nanotraps inhibited the virus 10 times better than only neutralizing antibodies or soluble ACE2.
The Nanotraps are made of Food and Drug Administration-approved polymers and phospholipids and are about 500 nanometers in diameter – much smaller than a cell. This means they can reach more areas in the body and trap the virus more effectively, scientists said.
Researchers said the nanotraps could be used potentially on variants of the virus so as to inhibit the virus going forward.
"That's what is so powerful about this Nanotrap," Rosenberg said in the release. "It's easily modulated. We can switch out different antibodies or proteins or target different immune cells, based on what we need with new variants."
The coronavirus Nanotrap is just in the testing phase, but Huang said people could eventually take the Nanotraps at home, "through an eye drop, nasal spray, or injection."
"This is the starting point," he said in the release. "We want to do something to help the world."
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