Researchers working on decoy molecule to fool COVID-19

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Dr Comoletti says the aim is to deliver the decoy product by inhaler so there is no risk to healthcare workers or family. The image is in the public domain.

Summary: Researchers are working to create a decoy molecule that can trick coronavirus by attracting it before it can attach to lung cells, thus lowering the infection risk of COVID-19. The team aims to deliver the decoy product in an inhaler form to limit the risk of exposure to coronavirus.

Source: Victoria University of Wellington

A decoy molecule that fools coronavirus by attracting it before it can attach to lung cells may provide a way forward in the fight against COVID-19. Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr. Davide Comoletti, a Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Science in the School of Biological Sciences, is one of a team now studying the practicalities of making a bogus “receptor.”

School of Biological Sciences colleague Professor Graham Le Gros, Director and Group Leader of the University-hosted Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, is also in the Auckland-based research group, led by Auckland Hospital immunologist Associate Professor Rohan Ameratunga.

Dr. Comoletti says the aim is to deliver the decoy product by inhaler so there is no risk to healthcare workers or family.

“The virus is also entering the lungs through droplets of moisture, so the decoy—we hope—would stop the virus from binding to the cells.”

“The idea is to make a purified receptor most spikes of the virus will bind to instead of to the actual receptors attached to sensitive cells.”

“Once the virus is ‘coated’ with the fake receptor, it should be eliminated like any other particle—dust, bacteria, non-pathogenic viruses—through the phlegm.”

The decoys will hopefully reduce the amount of virus that makes it through and attaches to the cells, he says.

“Imagine it this way. If you have a key—the virus’s spike—to enter a locked door—the cell— you first have to find the right lock pad—the receptor. Think of it as a bunch of lock pads flying around that will sequester all the keys the virus has, even before it sees the doors.”

Work on the project began in mid-March. The intention is to have an approved product ready to use on any critically ill Covid-19 patients in a bit more than two months, say Dr. Comoletti.

“While I leave the clinical work and testing to my colleagues, my specific role will be to produce and purify the receptor in large enough amounts that it can be used to help a few patients, at least as a test treatment. If it works, then large-scale, company production will be needed.”

Dr. Comoletti is one of the few academics still working on the University’s Kelburn campus during the lockdown, as it is essential Covid-19-related work. Helping him produce receptors in his lab are postdoctoral researcher Dr. Laura Trobiani and postgraduate student Liam Turk.

He says this is a novel approach towards mitigating the effects of a lethal infection.

“We are hoping this strategy will be successful, because it will reduce the morbidity and the mortality of Covid-19 infections.”

“It will mean some of those with severe cases of the disease will instead only have milder forms of infection. As well as reducing potential mortality rates, it may help free up precious intensive-care unit beds and equipment.”

“In the future, if our research proves to be successful and if drug supplies increase, the purified-receptor agent could be used in milder cases to ease and shorten the duration of infection and halt much community spread.”

“It could also be used on family members or caregivers exposed to the virus to reduce their risk of catching the infection, where the transmission rates are very high.”

“What we hope for the most is shortening the duration of the pandemic and saving many lives through a treatment that has a low-risk of adverse effects.”

The research team is not carrying out this work to make money and the results will be freely available for others to use.

Associate Professor Ameratunga says if a “drug company wants to manufacture our product, we ask that for every dose in the OECD 10 should be used in developing Asian, African and Latin American nations.”

Dr. Comoletti says the researchers are all using their own resources.

“I’ll be applying for funding towards this at some stage, but I’m very lucky to have Laura and Liam, two great researchers, working with me in the lab.”

Dr. Comoletti says they have to stay realistic and keep in mind the possible treatment is still a “long shot.”

“Doing nothing, however, is not an option.”

About this coronavirus research article

Victoria University of Wellington
Media Contacts:
Press Office – Victoria University of Wellington
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

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  1. Just a non biologist comment. Decoy molecules is an interesting idea but surely any success is based on relative concentrations and sticking coefficients of the two species. Is it feasible to think of inhaling a harmless virus that will occupy cell spaces and drastically reduce the interaction spots available to corona virus? Here you avoid the step involving the coating reaction of the virus making the approach simpler.

  2. You would be playing a bit of a numbers game. The coronavirus has numerous spike proteins dotting its surface to attach to the target cell receptors. When the numbers of virus particles are low relative to the ambient concentration of your decoy, that would be ideal. The best time to attempt this approach is when the virus has not yet had a chance to infiltrate the host’s cells to cause disruption, and prior to hijacking the cell machinery to manufacture more virus particles. Needless to say, catching the virus as early as possible would be the best approach. Alas, the affinity of this decoy may cross-react with the cell receptors’ endogenous agonist – disrupting the physiological processes that maintain cell homeostasis. Side effects would be anticipated. Unless, short term administration of the decoy is given to wash out the initial exposure of contagion.

    1. Acting as a decoy, “human recombinant soluble angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (hrsACE2) is soon to be tested in clinical trials by the European biotech company Apeiron Biologics, is useful as an antiviral therapy for COVID-19,” says Dr. Art Slutsky, a scientist at the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science of St. Michael’s Hospital and professor at the University of Toronto who is a collaborator on the study. In cell cultures analyzed in the current study, hrsACE2 inhibited the coronavirus load by a factor of 1,000-5,000.

  3. It is a step in the right direction but something to consider this virus gets a hold because unfortunately people are being given medication and a food supply that weakens something vital in our immune system. Now they are telling people to take vitamin d well a healthy person can absorb vitamin d but if you really look into medication and food it is bad it either suppresses absorption of an important nutrient or mineral or is lacking in the food supply this mineral is responsible for the bio chemical reaction of over 600 in the gut and intestinal tract. So you can take your vitamin d and many others and your wasting time. So do your homework and find out how bad the population is definition in this and the role it plays. And only stays in the body for a limited time. Please do an article on this. Telling people to take vitamin d without this is like saying put air in a flat tire with a big hole in it. Its magnesium magnesium. Try absorbing vitamins with low levels.

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