Shortly after COVID-19 lockdowns started to come into force almost exactly a year ago, a wave of novel engineering methods for breaking down the virus were proposed, including ultraviolet light-emitting robots and drones.
Now, researchers are turning to another approach with the same prefix: an MIT study shows that ultrasound waves at medical imaging frequencies can cause the virus shell and spikes to collapse and rupture in advanced simulations.
The spikes, the virus component that latches onto healthy cells, could be vulnerable to ultrasonic vibrations within the frequency used in medical diagnostic imaging, MIT researchers explain in a press statement.
In their simulations, researchers from the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering modeled the virus's mechanical response to vibrations rippling through its structure across a range of ultrasound frequencies.
They found that vibrations between 25 and 100 megahertz triggered the virus shell and spikes to collapse and start to rupture within a fraction of a second. The simulations showed that the virus would rupture in air and water at the same frequencies.
Potential new ultrasound-based treatment for COVID-19
Though the MIT researchers emphasize that their findings are only preliminary and based on limited data, they say the research does indicate that an ultrasound-based treatment could be developed to fight COVID-19.
"We’ve proven that under ultrasound excitation, the coronavirus shell and spikes will vibrate, and the amplitude of that vibration will be very large, producing strains that could break certain parts of the virus, doing visible damage to the outer shell and possibly invisible damage to the RNA inside," said Tomasz Wierzbicki, professor of applied mechanics at MIT. "The hope is that our paper will initiate a discussion across various disciplines."
For their simulations, the MIT team used simple concepts of the mechanics and physics of solids to construct their computational model of the virus's structure. Limited data, such as microscopic images of the virus's shell and spikes, were used to inform the model.
Though the exact material properties of the virus's spike are unknown, the researchers believe their simulation paves the way for further research into a novel treatment for COVID-19.
"We looked at the general coronavirus family, and now are looking specifically at the morphology and geometry of Covid-19," Wierzbicki said. "The potential is something that could be great in the current critical situation."
Such a treatment could help individuals who have not taken, or cannot take the vaccine. It could also provide an alternative and a failsafe in the unlikely event that new mutations of the virus bypass the immunity granted by the several COVID-19 jabs out there.