UCSF researchers develop artificial antibody that could target COVID-19

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The nanobody could be administered to patients via an inhalable aerosol, which is a method of treatment that could be conducted at home.

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Researchers at UCSF found a molecule that can potentially prevent SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from infecting human cells.

Co-author of the study and UCSF professor Peter Walter said by analyzing billions of synthetic molecules, researchers found one that is stable enough to be delivered via a patient’s airways. Walter said he and his colleagues are in discussion with pharmaceutical companies to work toward getting this potential preventive treatment approved for clinical testing.

The research team at UCSF developed synthetic nanobodies, or small antibodies, that target SARS-CoV-2, co-author and UCSF assistant professor Aashish Manglik said in an email. He added that these nanobodies bind to the virus and inactivate it, preventing further infection of cells.

“The easiest way to think about how SARS-CoV-2 gets into your cells is by using its spike protein coating the outside of each viral particle as a key to get in through our cell’s lock,” said lead researcher and UCSF graduate student Michael Schoof in an email. “Our molecule blocks this interaction. … Even though it would normally fit into the lock it just can’t fit in any more.”

The main implication of the study’s approach, according to Manglik, is that the therapy could be delivered via an inhalable aerosol. He added that this method is “patient friendly” and could be delivered at home.

The novel antiviral drug is intended to act as a preventive treatment against COVID-19, in addition to wearing masks and social distancing, Walter said.

Julia Schaletzky, executive director of the Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases at UC Berkeley, said the new therapy would be part of a “multi-pronged” approach in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and could help those who might not have access to the potential vaccine.

“Right now, we have relatively little to offer patients that are early in the course of infection if they do not have serious symptoms requiring hospital care,” Manglik said in an email. “We believe our approach could tackle early disease in these patients.”

Manglik added that the new approach could be used to prevent COVID-19 in high-risk individuals such as nursing home residents or health care workers.

Schaletzky said these nanobodies would be “broadly active” against a variety of coronavirus strains. She added that this method could later be applied in developing preventive measures for similarly structured viruses.

“I’d hope the general public is watching new therapeutic developments with a cautiously optimistic eye,” Manglik said in the email. “Any new approach to treating or preventing disease needs to be combined with strong public health measures for us to have a reasonable chance to resume our post-pandemic lives.”

Contact Eric Rogers and Matt Brown at [email protected].