A scientist is using AI to design a nasal spray that could protect us from the flu, COVID, and colds
- A researcher is developing a nasal spray using custom proteins that could protect against COVID-19.
- David Baker believes it's possible to make a similar spray that protects against even more viruses.
A prominent researcher has designed a nasal spray that he hopes will protect people from getting sick with COVID-19. For him, it's an early step toward his ultimate goal of crafting a virus-fighting cocktail that could work against several common infections.
The spray, in development by David Baker at the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington, aims to block the SARS-CoV-2 virus from entering cells and activating the immune system in the first place.
Baker's lab plans to start early human testing of the nasal spray later this year to make sure it's safe and test its efficacy. The lab has reported promising results in mice.
If it works, Baker wants to take the idea a step further — what if a nasal spray could protect against not just COVID-19, but also the flu and the common cold? Baker believes that a cocktail of proteins, delivered up a person's nose every few days, could provide meaningful protection from the most common respiratory viruses.
Baker's lab has spun out eight companies in the Seattle area, including Monod Bio and A-Alpha Bio. Baker won a Life Sciences Breakthrough Prize in 2021 for his work on protein design.
To be clear, Baker's spray is different from a vaccine. Vaccines stimulate the immune system to recognize and fight off an invading pathogen. Baker's spray contains proteins designed to stick to the parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that it uses to enter human cells, rendering them inert.
The spray will need to prove itself in several successively larger clinical trials before it becomes available more broadly, a process that typically takes years. Even if it wins approval, Baker said there's not yet a viable business model for this kind of therapeutic — another hurdle that will need to be overcome.
Baker and his lab are also working on sprays for the flu, MERS, and RSV. Baker told Insider that nasal sprays for these viruses are about halfway through animal trials right now, with no human trials scheduled yet.
Using AI, his ultimate goal is to create a nasal spray that's full of proteins that can block many different viruses.
Baker said that researchers could ask an AI engine, which he compared to the image-generator DALL-E, to spit out protein designs that can counteract rhinovirus, MERS, SARS-CoV-2, and the flu. Then the proteins could be manufactured and placed in a nasal spray.
Completely new proteins designed with AI could theoretically be made to deal with very specific problems — like latching onto the right part of a virus to block it from getting a foothold in human cells.
Baker said that designed proteins are more stable than naturally occurring proteins, so they won't degrade before they make it to one's nose. And the proteins are potent, so you can pack a lot of different types of proteins in the spray without losing effectiveness.
It'll probably be a while before we can bid goodbye to the winter sniffles. But the next time you come down with a cold, take some comfort in knowing it might not always be this way.
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