UCSD researchers say ‘nanosponges’ could be used as decoys to prevent COVID-19 infection

The coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19, is seen isolated from a patient.
(National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

UC San Diego says technology known as “nanosponges” developed by its engineers could work as a decoy to attract the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and divert it from infecting human cells.

Researchers say lab experiments conducted at Boston University have shown promising signs that the nanosponge platform inhibits SARS-CoV-2’s viral infectivity, or its ability to enter host cells and replicate the virus. The nanosponges are cloaked in membranes from human cells such as lung epithelial and immune cells, which the virus would latch onto instead of actual human cells.

UCSD says experiments have shown that both lung cell and immune cell types of nanosponges have caused the virus to lose nearly 90 percent of its viral infectivity.

Liangfang Zhang, a nanoengineering professor at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering, said the nanosponge platform was created more than a decade ago, but researchers recently began looking into its potential applications against COVID-19.

“Traditionally, drug developers for infectious diseases dive deep on the details of the pathogen in order to find druggable targets. Our approach is different. We only need to know what the target cells are. And then we aim to protect the targets by creating biomimetic decoys,” Zhang said.

Researchers anticipate the nanosponges also would work against new mutations of the coronavirus.

“Another interesting aspect of our approach is that even as SARS-CoV-2 mutates, as long as the virus can still invade the cells we are mimicking, our nanosponge approach should still work,” Zhang said. “ I’m not sure this can be said for some of the vaccines and therapeutics that are currently being developed.”

The effectiveness of the nanosponges will be evaluated in animal models in the next few months. Significant testing must be done before its efficacy in humans can be tested, according to UCSD. ◆