Mini Sponges Decoy the Coronavirus Before it Latches on to Lung Cells

New nanotechnology from Boston University researchers stops the virus from infecting cells and replicating.
Fabienne Lang
Cell cultures of the nanospongesGriffiths Lab/BU NEIDL

Here's a great thought: imagine if scientists had the ability to stop and detract the coronavirus before it latches on and infects lung cells and replicates itself. 

Boston University (BU) researchers at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) and the University of California San Diego have found a way do to just that. 

Their method involves using new nanotechnology in the form of a 'decoy sponge.'

Their findings were published in Nano Letters on Wednesday. 


Teeny tiny little decoy

The coronavirus is small but mighty, and now its counterpart may be just as small and just as mighty. The BU team's new technology could have some major positive implications in the continued fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. What's even better about it is that it'll potentially be able to be used to fight against any other virus. 

"I was skeptical at the beginning because it seemed too good to be true," said NEIDL microbiologist Anna Honko, one of the first authors on the study. "But when I saw the first set of results in the lab, I was just astonished."

The new technology is made up of little, nanosized drops of polymers — a bit like a mini sponge — that are covered with fragments of living lung cell and immune cell membranes. 

Mini Sponges Decoy the Coronavirus Before it Latches on to Lung Cells
Anna Honko mixing the nanosponges with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and lung cells, Source: Griffiths Lab/BU NEIDL

The way the coronavirus operates is that it seeks and finds lung cell membranes and then latches onto them. Then the infection takes hold as the virus replicates itself through these lung cells. 

What the BU team discovered was that by coating their polymers with lung cells, these attracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus better than the regular lung cells. This makes the new technology an interesting and useful countermeasure to coronavirus infection. 

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"Our guess is that it acts like a decoy, it competes with cells for the virus," explained NEIDL microbiologist Anthony Griffiths, co-author on the study. "They are little bits of plastic, just containing the outer pieces of cells with none of the internal cellular machinery contained inside living cells. Conceptually, it’s such a simple idea. It mops up the virus like a sponge."

The team believes that their newly-discovered technology could be used in the form of a nasal spray, making it a nice and easy method to combat the virus

The team is also especially excited to find out just how far it can push this technology, by seeing how many other viruses it can detract as well — something that would be integral around the world. 

"I’m interested in seeing how far we can push this technology," Honko said. 

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