Potential Coronavirus Treatment Uses Tiny ‘Sponges’ To Protect Lungs

Scientists have found a new way to protect patients from the deadly effects of COVID-19. A new treatment uses "nanosponges" to cut the ability of the novel coronavirus to attack the lungs and hijack host cells.

The potential COVID-19 treatment, described in the journal Nano Letters, works by soaking up cells and diverting them away to prevent infection. Lab tests showed the nanosponges were able to reduce the "viral infectivity" of the virus by nearly 90 percent.

The novel coronavirus affects the lungs by latching to cell membranes. It then uses those host cells to replicate their own genetic material, which leads to infection. 

Researchers from Boston University's National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) and the University of California San Diego used that process to create the new treatment for COVID-19. The team created polymer droplets loaded with lung cell membranes to attract the coronavirus and divert it away from the real cells. 

The nanosponges also bind with the virus better than living cells. Once they are attached to the foreign invader, researchers said the immune system can dispose of them as part of the normal cell cycle.

"Our guess is that it acts like a decoy, it competes with cells for the virus," Anthony Griffiths, co-corresponding study author and a NEIDL microbiologist, said in a statement. "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."

Griffiths and his colleagues tested the nanotechnology on cell culture dishes. But they expressed confidence that the nanosponges will act with similar efficiency in the body.

The new approach also showed a potential to treat other conditions. Researchers said using nanosponges may also help prevent complications due to influenza and Ebola. 

"From the perspective of an immunologist and virologist, the nanosponge platform was immediately appealing as a potential antiviral because of its ability to work against viruses of any kind," Anna Honko, co-study author and a research associate professor at NEIDL, said. "This means that as opposed to a drug or antibody that might very specifically block SARS-CoV-2 infection or replication, these cell membrane nanosponges might function in a more holistic manner in treating a broad spectrum of viral infectious diseases."

Researchers plan to continue the study in the coming months to see the nanosponges' efficacy in animal models. 

Nanosponges Researcher Anna Honko prepares the assay in the BSL-4 in the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL). Griffiths Lab/Boston University NEIDL