A scientist is using AI to design a nasal spray that could protect us from the flu, COVID and colds

David Baker directs the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington.Ian C Haydon/University of Washington Institute for Protein Design

  • A researcher is developing a nasal spray with personalized proteins that could protect against COVID-19.

  • David Baker thinks it’s possible to make a similar spray that protects against even more viruses.

  • But it will be a while before that nasal spray cocktail is available.

A leading researcher has designed a nasal spray that he hopes will protect people from getting sick from COVID-19. For him, it’s a first step toward his ultimate goal of creating a virus-fighting cocktail that could work against a number of common infections.

The spray, developed by David Baker at the University of Washington Institute for Protein Design, aims to block the SARS-CoV-2 virus from entering cells and activate the immune system in the first place.

Baker’s lab plans to begin 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 not only against COVID-19, but also against the flu and the common cold? Baker believes that a protein cocktail, administered through a person’s nose every few days, could provide significant protection against the most common respiratory viruses.

Baker’s lab has created 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.

A researcher wearing an aubergine puffer coat and a cloth mask with a cat face works in the laboratory of the Institute for Protein Design.

Researcher at the University of Protein Design.Ian C Haydon/University of Washington Institute for Protein Design

To be clear, Baker’s spray is different from a vaccine. Vaccines stimulate the immune system to recognize and fight an invading pathogen. Baker’s aerosol contains proteins designed to attach to the parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that it uses to enter human cells, rendering them inert.

The spray will need to be tested in several successively larger clinical trials before it becomes more widely available, a process that typically takes years. Even if it wins approval, Baker said there isn’t yet a viable business model for this type of therapy, another hurdle that will need to be overcome.

Baker and his lab are also working on aerosols for influenza, MERS, and RSV. Baker told Insider that nasal sprays for these viruses are in the middle of animal trials right now, and no human trials are scheduled yet.

Using AI, his ultimate goal is to create a nasal spray that is packed with proteins that can block many different viruses.

Baker said that researchers could ask an AI engine, which he likened to the DALL-E imager, to produce protein designs that can counter rhinovirus, MERS, SARS-CoV-2 and influenza. The proteins could then be made and put into a nasal spray.

In theory, entirely new proteins designed with AI could be made to address very specific problems, such as attaching to the right part of a virus to prevent it from gaining a foothold in human cells.

Baker said the engineered proteins are more stable than natural proteins, so they won’t break down before reaching the nose. And the proteins are potent, so you can include many different types of proteins in the spray without losing efficacy.

It will probably be a while before we can say goodbye to winter colds. But the next time you have a cold, take comfort in the knowledge that it won’t always be like this.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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