Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, in the United States, and the biotechnology company Regeneron are investigating whether a technology developed for gene therapy can be used to create a nasal spray that prevents infections by the new coronavirus.
The idea is to use a weakened virus as a vehicle to carry genetic instructions to cells inside the nose and throat, so that they create antibodies capable of preventing the coronavirus from invading the human body.
Scientists are testing that technology on animals. According to the project manager, Professor of Medicine James Wilson, if the spray works, it could provide about six months of protection with a single dose.
Wilson is a pioneer of gene therapy, which involves inserting 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 but without causing disease, can be engineered to carry healthy DNA into cells.
That work led to the 2019 approval of Zolgensma, the first treatment for spinal muscular atrophy, and adeno-associated viruses are now being investigated for dozens of other possible applications.
The US government contacted Wilson in February to see if his team could use the technology against COVID
But scientists at the University of Pennsylvania couldn't move on before Regeneron developed two promising synthetic antibodies to the coronavirus, which stick to the pathogen's protein surface and prevent it from invading cells.
Regeneron antibodies are in clinical trials, but have already received emergency approval for use in patients with mild or moderate COVID
-19 at high risk for a severe variant of the disease.
The doctors who treated US President Donald Trump
-19 administered these antibodies.
The researchers hope that the nasal spray will be able to enter nasal epithelial cells and modify their protein production to make Regeneron antibodies.
Normally, immune cells are the only ones that can create antibodies, which makes this project a very innovative idea.
Since the coronavirus enters the lungs through the nasal passage, the spray could prevent infection.
Adeno-associated viruses also have the advantage of creating only a mild immune response, so their side effects could 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 tests on animals in January, before requesting authorization from the US drug agency to begin human trials.