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Scientists unveil coronavirus-killing inhaler — here's how it works

UCSF AeroNabs coronavirus inhaler
(Image credit: UCSF)

After all of the warnings against breathing in coronavirus droplets, could the answer to fighting the pandemic be an inhaler? Scientists at University of California San Francisco have developed an aerosol formulation made of antibody-like nanobodies that can prevent the virus from infecting cells.

Self-administered via an inhaler or nasal spray, It could be a breakthrough approach to treating the coronavirus while the world waits for a reliable vaccine.

The researchers found that certain nanobodies, which come from llamas and camels, can act latch onto the spike protein found on the exterior of SARS-CoV-2 and neutralize it. Their synthetic versions of these nanobodies are called AeroNabs.

"Used once a day, AeroNabs could provide powerful, reliable protection against SARS-CoV-2 until a vaccine becomes available," the researchers said in their findings published in bioRxiv. 

Nanobodies are antibody-like immune proteins found in llamas and camels. They're much smaller than human antibodies, which makes them easier to manipulate and modify in the lab. Plus, unlike human antibodies, nanobodies can be easily and inexpensively mass-produced.

The UCSF team examined roughly two billion synthetic nanobodies to find ones that could hook up to the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, then re-engineered them to be even more potent. During their research, they found that the nanobodies remained effective in aerosol form, so they could be administered via a shelf-stable inhaler or nasal spray.

"Far more effective than wearable forms of personal protective equipment, we think of AeroNabs as a molecular form of PPE that could serve as an important stopgap until vaccines provide a more permanent solution to COVID-19,” said AeroNabs co-inventor Peter Walter, PhD, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

The inhaler or nasal spray will have to undergo clinical trials before becoming commercially available. If these tests are successful, AeroNabs could be widely available as an inexpensive, over-the-counter medication to prevent and treat COVID-19.