Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States and biotechnology company Regeneron are researching whether a technology developed for gene therapy can be used to create a nasal spray that prevents infections with the new coronavirus.
The idea is to use a weakened virus as a vehicle to carry genetic instructions to the cells of the nose and throat, so that they create antibodies capable of preventing the coronavirus from invading the human body.
Scientists are testing this technology on animals. According to the project manager, Professor of Medicine James Wilson, if the spray works, it can provide about six months of protection with a single dose.
Wilson is a pioneer of gene therapy, which involves inserting a genetic code into patients’ cells to correct defects and treat disease.
His research team found that adeno-associated viruses, which infect animals and other primates without causing disease, can be modified to transport healthy DNA to cells.
This work led to the approval in 2019 of Zolgensma, the first treatment for spinal muscular atrophy, and other possible applications of adeno-associated viruses are now being investigated.
The U.S. government contacted Wilson in February to see if his team could use the technology against covid-19.
However, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania failed to advance before Regeneron developed two promising synthetic antibodies against the coronavirus, which stick to the surface of the pathogen’s protein and invade the cells.
Regeneron’s antibodies are in clinical trials, but have already received emergency approval for use in patients with mild or moderate covid-19 at high risk of suffering a severe variant of the disease.
The doctors who treated U.S. President Donald Trump when he contracted the coronavirus administered these antibodies.
The researchers hope that the nasal spray will be able to enter the nasal epithelial cells and modify their protein production to generate Regeneron’s antibodies.
Normally, immune cells are the only ones that can create antibodies, which makes this project a very innovative idea.
As the coronavirus enters the lungs through the nasal passage, the spray can prevent infection.
Adeno-associated viruses also have the advantage of creating only a mild immune response, so their side effects may be less severe than those of more advanced vaccines, which train the immune system to recognize a key coronavirus protein.
The University of Pennsylvania and Regeneron hope to finish their animal testing in January, and then seek authorization from the U.S. drug agency to begin testing on humans.