A new study revealed that an algae-based nasal spray, originally developed as a preventative for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), may be effective in preventing COVID-19.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh developed a molecule called Q-griffithsin using an anti-viral protein found in the New Zealand red algae Griffithsia and Nicotiana benthamiana, a plant in the same family as tobacco plants.
Although, according to researchers, people who use the spray won’t receive the harmful effects associated with ingesting or inhaling tobacco.
“The end result is all protein, so there’s nothing from the plant itself,” Kenneth Palmer, chair in pharmaceutical plant-based research at the University of Louisville said. “We purify the plant, so there’s no harmful components left. It’s like when people use bacteria to make antibiotics.”
The formulations for Q-griffithsin were originally developed as a possible preventative for HIV. However, after watching the COVID-19 pandemic escalate, the research team looked back at previous data which showed the effectiveness of the molecule against coronavirus.
“This is a product that already has a nice safety profile and has an application that has allowed it to move forward in the clinic. We believe this is a product we can rapidly advance in a realistic way,” Lisa Rohan, one of the lead researchers on the collaboration said.
Griffithsin works by binding to viruses, preventing them from infecting cells in both animals and humans.
“The nice thing about Q-griffithsin is that it has a number of activities against other viruses and pathogens,” said Rohan. “It’s been shown to be effective against Ebola, herpes, and hepatitis, as well as a broad spectrum of coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS.”
The nasal spray was designed for people at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, such as health care professionals and people with compromised immune systems.
“We feel a nasal spray is perfect… to neutralize the virus before it gets into the lungs and causes a lot of clinical complications,” Rohan said.
However, according to Rohan, the spray is not an effective replacement for a vaccine.
“This will be more of an on-demand type product… If you’re going to the grocery store, or into work, it would hopefully provide protection while you’re on your shift,” she said. “The vaccine will also be specific for this particular coronavirus, while the nasal spray can be used for a broad spectrum of diseases. Also, given Q-griffithsin’s broad-spectrum activity against coronaviruses, it has the potential to thwart future infections.”
There is still more research to be done before the nasal spray will be ready for the general public, but Rohan said she is hopeful that things will move forward quickly.
“With adequate funding, we’re hoping to move the product into the clinic before the end of the year,” she said.