A different kind of shot in the arm against COVID-19 | WORLD
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A different kind of shot in the arm against COVID-19

Scientists explore “DNA shots” to protect people from the coronavirus

iStock.com/Udom Pinyo

A different kind of shot in the arm against COVID-19

In the race to produce a coronavirus vaccine, some companies are experimenting with a novel approach using gene therapy. The faster, cheaper method could trigger people’s bodies to produce their own antibodies against the virus more quickly than a traditional vaccine would.

The new technique—still in the early stages of research—involves taking antibodies from the blood of someone who has survived COVID-19 and isolating their genetic material. Doctors would then inject the DNA into the arm or leg of a patient, where it would provide instructions for the muscle to produce more antibodies to fight the virus. The gene therapy technique could provide immunity or lessen the severity of the disease in those already infected.

Doctors could enhance the treatment with a gene gun. The device delivers an electric shock that causes the muscle cells to pop open for an instant, increasing absorption of the injected DNA. The procedure could, within just hours, turn the muscle into an antibody-producing factory, according to SmartPharm, one of the companies working on the treatment.

“You can make DNA very readily, it’s dirt cheap, and you let the muscle make the antibody,” Sorrento Therapeutics CEO Henry Ji, who is working with SmartPharm, told MIT Technology Review.

Traditional vaccines depend on the recipient’s immune system to mount a protective response against the virus. But it takes several weeks for a body to generate an immune response strong enough to provide protection. Some peoples’ bodies can’t do it at all, particularly the elderly and others at high risk for COVID-19. With the new treatment, the muscles could produce protective levels of the antibody within a day or two. The antibody production could last weeks, or even months, regardless of the strength of the patient’s immune system.

Vaccines usually only work if given before someone contracts the disease. But the gene therapy can neutralize the virus even in an active infection.

Scientists have not yet tested this method of preventing and treating COVID-19 in humans. But David Weiner, director of the vaccine and immunotherapy center at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, told MIT Technology Review his center has tested anti-COVID-19 gene injections on animals. Last year, researchers at AbCellera in Vancouver, Canada, developed a gene shot that allowed mice to survive a dose of avian influenza 20 times the lethal amount.

DNA injections might also prove useful as an inexpensive way to treat cancer and arthritis, Weiner said. Even if scientists cannot develop the technique in time to prevent or treat COVID-19, the research could enable a quick solution to the next pandemic.

“In the future, we will have gone through the drill,” Ji said. “You’ll just snap your gene in.”

An isolated E. coli growth on an agar plate

An isolated E. coli growth on an agar plate Associated Press/Photo by Elaine Thompson (file)

Space bugs

Researchers in Israel plan to launch a mini–satellite lab carrying E. coli bacteria into space this week. They hope to gain a better understanding of how bacteria develop drug resistance.

A silicon chip will hold the bacteria in isolated chambers aboard the unmanned, 6-square-foot satellite. Some of the chambers will contain 10 million drug-resistant bacteria, while others will have the same amount of nonresistant bacteria.

Often, drug resistance develops when one strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria transfers the responsible genes to another strain. Research suggests near-zero gravity situations slow this process.

Two weeks after the launch, one of the team’s researchers, Dr. Ohad Gal-Mor, will use a computer to mix the two types of bacteria on the chip. He will virtually monitor how quickly the gene transfer that causes resistance occurs and then replicate the procedure with an identical chip on Earth for comparison, The Times of Israel reported.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria kill about 700,000 people a year. Some diseases that experts thought they had nearly eradicated, like tuberculosis and gonorrhea, developed resistance and are resurfacing. “In some cases, these infections are not only resistant to just one or two antimicrobial drugs, but sometimes they are resistant to multiple drugs … and in a growing number of cases are no longer treatable,” Gal-Mor said.

The researchers hope to learn how low-gravity inhibits the gene transfer, which could help scientists develop methods to slow the process on Earth. —J.B.

An isolated E. coli growth on an agar plate

An isolated E. coli growth on an agar plate Associated Press/Photo by Elaine Thompson (file)

Stronger protection

When COVID-19 began to circulate, demand skyrocketed for personal protective equipment like disposable gowns and face masks. But the material used to make PPE can absorb and carry viruses and bacteria that spread illnesses.

Now, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering have created a reusable textile coating that prevents viruses from sticking to surfaces. Washing, scrubbing, and scraping can destroy the repellant properties of other materials used for PPE, but not this one.

“Given the PPE shortage, there is a need for coatings that can be applied to reusable medical textiles that can be properly washed and sanitized,” said Paul Leu, co-author of the research.

Leu and his team already knew the coating would repel protein, blood, and bacteria. They tested it with two types of common adenoviruses that cause acute respiratory disease and pink eye, both of which the coating repelled. The material could help prevent the spread of adenoviruses from contaminated surfaces such as chairs in hospital waiting rooms.

Next, researchers will test the coating with coronaviruses like the one that causes COVID-19. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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