Can Peptides Fight COVID-19?

New Research Finds Peptides May Offer Promise in the Fight Against COVID-19

A team of researchers from The Ohio State University may have discovered a way to interrupt the process by which the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 infects the human body, which could slow or inactivate the virus. Their research appears in the journal Bioconjugate Chemistry.

There have been more than 28 million COVID-19 cases reported in the United States, with over 500,000 deaths from the disease to date. Although vaccination programs are currently in progress to curb the spread of the disease, there is still an urgent need for other ways to prevent COVID-19.

Previous research has shown that in order to cause infection, SARS-CoV-2 must enter the body and attach to ACE2 receptors on cell surfaces. ACE2 receptors appear throughout the body, including the vascular system, nose, throat, and brain, and are especially abundant in the lungs and small intestines.

The infection process begins when SARS-CoV-2 enters the body through the nose or mouth. Once inside the body, the virus uses its outer spike protein to attach itself to ACE2 receptors on the surface of cells. After binding to the receptor, the virus begins to fuse into the cell and releases its genetic material into the host cell, instructing it to make new copies of the virus.

SARS-CoV-2 is very proficient at this process due to its ability to bond tightly to ACE2 receptors through its spike proteins.

If the immune system does not catch this dangerous activity quickly and attack, SARS-CoV-2 can continue to replicate and destroy cells. Like most pathogens, the combination of cell disruption and damage initiated by the virus and the immune system’s reaction to the invader is what causes the symptoms of COVID-19.

Because preventing COVID-19 is more advantageous than treating the disease, finding a way to stop SARS-CoV-2 from binding to cells is crucial.

Using Peptides to ‘Fool’ SARS-CoV-2

Lead researchers Amit Sharma, Ross Larue and their Ohio State colleagues looked at peptides as a way to inhibit SARS-Cov-2 from attaching to cells.

Using new technology in crystallizing proteins and microscopy, the team examined images of SARS-CoV-2 and ACE2 receptors, looking specifically at the virus’s spike protein and the point of attachment on ACE2.

The scientists focused on testing several peptides to see if any would incite the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to attach and subsequently reduce the virus’s ability to replicate in cell cultures. They were particularly interested in creating the shortest possible peptides that could bind to spike proteins using the minimum number of contact points.

Compared to controls, the team found that two peptides, one with minimum contact points and another with larger points of contact, effectively reduced the virus’s ability to infect cells in a culture. 

What Are the Implications of this Discovery?

This finding is significant because once one of the peptides has ‘tricked’ the SARS-CoV-2 virus into binding with them instead of a cell, it can no longer bind to a cell and replicate – potentially inactivating the virus before it can trigger infection.

Because these peptides can potentially bind with the virus and inactivate it or reduce its ability to trigger infections, this newly discovered technology may open a new pathway in the fight against COVID-19. 

Researchers Sharma and Larue believe that with the results they have achieved with peptides, the team is now in a position to move towards product development. Product development could include manufacturing peptide-based nasal sprays that block SARS-CoV-2 as it enters the body, or creating aerosol sprays that inactivate the virus when applied to surfaces.

As for the researchers’ future plans with their discovery, Sharma says that the goal is to neutralize the virus effectively and potently. And because of the emergence of multiple virus variants, they are extremely interested in assessing the effectiveness of their technology against the emerging mutations.

Sharma and Larue have a provisional patent application pending for this technology.

See the full study at:  https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.bioconjchem.0c00664

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