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

Photo of David Baker in front of the whiteboard.

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

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

  • David Baker believes that a similar spray can be made that protects against even more viruses.

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

A prominent researcher has designed a nasal spray that he hopes will protect people from getting sick with COVID-19. For him, it’s an early step towards his ultimate goal of crafting a virus-fighting cocktail that could work against some common infections.

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

Baker’s lab plans to begin early human testing of the nasal spray later this year to ensure its safety and test its effectiveness. The laboratory has shown promising results in mice.

If it works, Baker wants to take the idea a step further – what if a nasal spray could protect against not only COVID-19, but also the flu and colds? Baker believes that a cocktail of proteins, delivered up a person’s nose every few days, could provide meaningful protection from the most common respiratory viruses.

Baker’s Seattle-area lab has spun off eight companies, including Monod Bio and A-Alpha Bio. Baker won the Life Sciences Grand Prize in 2021 for his work on protein design.

A researcher wearing an aubergine puffer coat and a cat-faced fabric mask works in the lab at the Institute for Protein Design.

Researcher at the University of Protein Design.Ian C Haydon/UW 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 spray contains proteins designed to stick to the parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that it uses to enter human cells, rendering them inert.

The spray must prove itself in a series of larger clinical trials before it is widely available, a process that takes many years. Even if it gets approved, Baker said there’s still no viable business model for this type of therapeutic — another hurdle to overcome.

Baker and his lab are also working on sprays for influenza, MERS, and RSV. Baker told Insider that nasal sprays for these viruses are currently about halfway through animal trials, with no human trials scheduled yet.

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

Baker said researchers could ask an AI engine, which he compared to the DALL-E image generator, to turn off protein designs that could fight rhinoceros, MERS, SARS-CoV-2, and the flu. Then the proteins could be manufactured and put into a nasal spray.

New AI-designed proteins could theoretically be made to deal with very specific problems – like latching onto the right part of a virus to prevent it from entering human cells.

Baker said engineered proteins are more stable than naturally occurring proteins, so they won’t degrade before reaching humans. And the proteins are powerful, so you can pack many different types of proteins in the spray without losing effectiveness.

It will probably be a while before we can say goodbye to the sniffles of winter. But the next time you come down with a cold, take comfort in knowing that it may not always be like this.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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