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Protective snuff against the coronavirus

Just sniff a puff from an atomizer and you can safely and carefree board the plane, go to a festival or visit a theater performance. An antiviral in the spray temporarily protects you from corona contamination.

Science fiction? Perhaps, but the first step towards such a futuristic antiviral nasal spray has been taken. Researchers at Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, together with American colleagues, have convincingly demonstrated that it works in any case with ferrets. Article link

The results appeared in this week Science.

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Ferrets are very susceptible to respiratory viruses such as corona. If one animal is infected, all other ferrets in the same cage will also contract the infection in no time. Although it doesn’t make them seriously ill, the virus activates their immune system and makes antibodies. It makes ferrets suitable as ‘canaries in a coal mine’ to study even the slightest risk of corona contamination. With that in mind, the results of the study are spectacular: six ferrets that were given the antiviral drug in their noses beforehand were fully protected against infection for 24 hours. Article link

The six control animals that did not receive the drug all became infected.

Tail that anchors

“In addition to vaccines and medicines, this drug offers a completely different angle to combat the pandemic,” says principal investigator Rik de Swart, virologist at Erasmus MC. “At the moment the biggest problem is that the virus continues to spread despite the drastic measures. With an antiviral like this you could inhibit the spread of the virus in a different way. ”

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The active substance in the experimental agent is a lipopeptide. Article link

The central ‘lipo’ portion of the molecule acts like a tail that anchors in the cell membrane of surface cells in the airways. These are also the target cells of the virus; the place where infection can be blocked.

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The actual work is done by the two short pieces of protein (peptides) on the ends of the lipopeptide. They literally wait for the virus with open arms. Article link

The sequence of amino acids in the peptides has been chosen to exactly fit a crucial part of the virus fusion protein. As soon as the activated virus particle gets near the trapping arms, it is taken into a hold that sabotages the trick with which the virus tries to enter the cell.

I’m actually a measles researcher

Rik de Swart virologist

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The virus uses a kind of molecular zipper in its spike protein, with two halves that fit together exactly. This allows it to move so close to the host cell that the cell membranes fuse by themselves. Article link

The lipopeptide is designed to fit exactly on one half of the zipper, causing it to block. Article link

The virus is literally kept at bay and cannot merge with the cell.

“I am actually a measles researcher,” says De Swart. He previously developed such a remedy for the measles virus together with a group from Columbia University. That experience was now very useful, says De Swart: “Immediately when the pandemic broke out, the Americans asked if we would also like to cooperate in the development of similar drugs against corona.”

Unlike a vaccine, the protection of this antiviral agent is only temporary. Exactly how long it will last remains to be investigated. In the first experiments with ferrets, it worked for at least 24 hours, but the effect had disappeared after three weeks.

Worrying variants

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The lipopeptide has also been shown to protect against the troubling variants of the coronavirus in cell cultures, with mutations that may allow them to escape existing vaccines. De Swart: “Article link

The new variants all appear to be at least as sensitive to this substance and some even seemed more sensitive.”

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The team is also investigating whether treatment with a lipopeptide is useful shortly after an infection has taken place. “This sometimes works with other viral infections,” says De Swart. “With a fresh infection, the amount of virus in your body is still so low that you can inhibit virus multiplication so that you do not become ill. And in this way you could possibly also prevent the spread to others. ”

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The need for drugs against corona is high. How quickly can this agent be used in humans? De Swart does not dare to predict: “We have carried out the fundamental research and now hope to find partners who can develop it further. That is still quite a process. But it can go quickly, as the vaccine research has shown. I mean, a year ago we would not have thought it possible that we now have properly working and approved RNA vaccines. ”

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