Researchers at the UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering have developed a new COVID-19 treatment that is able to trap virus particles, enabling the immune system to destroy them.
The new treatment, which has been shown to be highly effective, is made up of nanoparticles called “nanotraps.” A nanotrap is able to trick SARS-CoV-2 into binding with it by mimicking the characteristics of cells that the virus targets. Once the virus is bound to the nanotrap, immune cells mark the infected cells for destruction.
The research was led by graduate student Jill Rosenburg and postdoctoral scholar Min Chen, under the direction of Pritzker’s Assistant Professor Jun Huang.
“The pandemic is something we didn’t expect,” Huang said, “but as immunologists, and simultaneously as engineers, we felt that we had to do something to help the world.”
The coronavirus infects target cells in the human body by using spike proteins on its surface to bind with ACE2 receptors on the surface of the target cell. The existence of these receptors is what enables SARS-CoV-2 to enter target cells.
The researchers designed their nanotraps to take advantage of this behavior. By imitating the ACE2 receptors on target cells, nanotraps are able to lure the virus into binding to them. Next, they designed nanoparticles with antibodies on their surface that are able to bind to and weaken viral cells. “We want to stimulate our immune system to really target those viruses. First trap, then try to degrade the virus,” said Min.
Another advantage of this new treatment is that it is highly modular, meaning that pieces of the nanotrap can be swapped out and modified to adjust for differences that might occur with new variants of the virus.
Extensive testing has affirmed the treatment’s effectiveness. “We first tested whether it works in vitro. We looked at whether the particle would actually bind to the virus,” said Rosenburg. They found that the nanotraps bound to viral cells in 10 minutes, and the viral cells were subsequently engulfed and degraded within 48 hours.
Next, they tested their new treatment on mice to ensure that there were no unwanted side effects. “We looked at the blood chemistry, we looked at the histology, and we made sure that the nanoparticles had no effect on the mice,” Rosenberg said. The researchers then tested the treatment on a pair of ex vivo human lungs with a weakened virus that is unable to replicate. They were able to show that the nanotraps cleared the virus from the live lungs. Finally, in collaboration with researchers at UChicago’s Argonne National Labs, the treatment was tested in vitro with the full virus and proved to be highly effective.
The researchers have determined that the nanoparticles could be administered through a nasal spray, injection, or even eye drops.
Ultimately, the researchers emphasized the importance of collaboration in creating the new treatment. “This was a huge collaborative effort between ourselves, the medical department, the chemistry department, the biosafety level three facilities at Argonne Labs, it was a really big collaborative event,” said Rosenburg. “One of the really positive things that has come out of the pandemic for science is that it has created an awesome collaborative environment where everybody just wants to help each other to find treatments and vaccines and cures.”