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Memphis News & Weather | Memphis, TN | WATN - localmemphis.com

University of Mississippi researchers working on nasal spray to block COVID-19

Researchers said early tests show the spray is effective in blocking the virus from attaching to cells.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. —

University of Mississippi schools of Pharmacy and Medicine are working together to develop a treatment that could be effective prevention for COVID-19. And it's so small you could even carry around in your bag.

The treatment is being developed to take the form of a nasal spray that would be prescribed by a doctor and self-administered. Researchers believe a daily dose of the spray could make those taking it more resistant to the coronavirus. 

Joshua Sharp, a UM associate professor of pharmacology, and Ritesh Tandon, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, lead the team of researchers. They have collaborated with a team from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute led by Robert Linhardt, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the RPI School of Science. 

Credit: University of Mississippi
Ritesh Tandon is an associate professor of microbiology and immunity at the University of Memphis Medical Center.
Credit: University of Mississippi
Joshua Sharp is an University of Mississippi associate professor of pharmacology.

"Some viruses use a family of sugars known as heparin sulfate, which is present on the surface of pretty much every cell in your body, to stick to the surface of the cell," Sharp said, "Once they're stuck on that surface sugar layer, it's easier for the virus to find the specific protein it uses to enter the cell." 

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, appears to follow that pattern. Sharp and Tandon believe they found a way to stop this from happening. The treatment uses heparin, a complex sugar that has been used as an anticoagulant for nearly 80 years, to block the virus from attaching to and entering cells. Heparin is closely related to heparin sulfate, a sugar that exists on the surface of cells and is used by many viruses to attach to the cells. 

Their research has been tested on with pseudotyped virus that has been altered to attach and enter the cell in a similar way to SARS-CoV-2. The pseudotyped virus is unable to make copies of itself. Iis noninfectious and safe to work with, allowing researchers to see how it is affected by heparin. 

"We found very interesting results," Tandon said, "Heparin was really effective against this virus, and it could neutralize the virus." 

The researchers found a nasal spray would be the most effective after data showed COVID-19 establishes itself in the nasal cavity.  

"Several groups have published data that indicate that most COVID-19 infections probably start with the virus infecting cells lining the nasal cavity," Sharp said. 

Linhardt believes the nasal spray could be very helpful in slowing the spread of COVID-19, especially for those who aren’t showing any symptoms. 

"The reason why we like it is that it's very early intervention," Linhardt said. "It may be useful for asymptomatic people, people who have been exposed and maybe don't have the disease yet, or people who are just beginning to get it." 

The research team hopes to move onto clinical trials and confirm that heparin nasal spray if safe for a human to take. Then they will be able to test if the heparin is effective against infection. If it is, this treatment could be an easy-to-use treatment against the coronavirus.