The use of a nasal spray to administer a new COVID-19 treatment, developed from tiny llama antibodies, could potentially be the future of administering vaccines and protecting against infectious diseases, according to some experts.
Researchers at the Rosalind Franklin Institute in the U.K. have found that nanobodies, a smaller form of antibody developed by llamas and camels, could effectively target the virus that causes COVID-19 infections.
In a statement, researchers at the institute said that they were able to create nanobodies by injecting a part of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein into a llama called Fifi.
While Fifi herself did not get sick, the introduction of the spike protein — the part of the virus responsible for binding it to human cells — triggered her immune system to generate nanobodies to fight off the virus’ protein.
Researchers took a sample of Fifi’s blood, extracted four nanobodies from it and engineered it in a laboratory setting into chains of three that were able to neutralize variants of the virus — including the original and Alpha variant. A fourth nanobody chain was able to neutralize the Beta variant as well.
Scientists said the cheaper and easier to use nanobodies do not have to be stored in cold storage like the COVID-19 vaccines and could be administered through a nasal spray.
“While vaccines have proven extraordinarily successful, not everyone responds to vaccination and immunity can wane in individuals at different times,” said Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute.
“Having medications that can treat the virus is still going to be very important, particularly as not all of the world is being vaccinated at the same speed and there remains a risk of new variants capable of bypassing vaccine immunity emerging.”
While public health officials herald the research as having “significant” potential for the prevention and treatment of the novel coronavirus, infectious diseases experts say that a similar nasal spray could also potentially be used to administer the COVID-19 vaccine and vaccines for other infectious diseases — and that its widespread use may not be too far off.
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“If it proves to be successful, it would be something to consider for the future in terms of dealing with some other potential emerging viruses like that,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Queen’s University, in an interview with Global News.
“It’s very interesting.”
The researchers working on the nasal nanobodies said that the spray held several other advantages over regular human antibodies typically administered with a needle, including the ease of use and the ability for a person to self-administer.
Most importantly, such a treatment would go directly to the “site of infection in the respiratory tract.”
Evans said that such a treatment could directly spray into the part of the nasal cavity where the virus is most likely to bind to and infect a person.
He explained that people who get traditional, systemic vaccines like the COVID-19 shot start to build high antibody levels against the virus right after getting their jab — though the effectiveness of producing those neutralizing antibodies in their blood drops off after a period of time.
Spraying those llama-made nanobodies directly into the part of the body where a person is most likely to contract the disease would greatly help prevent the attachment of those COVID-19 spike proteins.
“So if you could put them into a nasal spray and just shoot it up people’s noses and get that sort of effect that you would have if you had a vaccine-induced antibody setting up in the nasopharynx,” said Evans.
While the possibilities look promising, Evans said the development of nasal applications for vaccines was still very early, and that upscaling its industrial production could be a serious challenge.
Researchers at McMaster University said earlier in June that they were looking into how a reaction in the human immune system could lead to aerosol and nasal spray treatments that could prevent infections in the body.
“Vaccines can produce these antibodies that are present in our lungs, which are the first type of antibody to see viruses like flu or COVID-19, which infect our lungs and respiratory tracts,” said Matthew Miller, an associate professor at McMaster’s in a previous statement to Global News.
“Mechanisms that can stop the infection at the site where it enters our body can prevent the spread and serious complications.”
Evans said that the use of a nasal spray as opposed to a needle could be more effective at getting vaccine-hesitant populations to be immunized, pointing at the effectiveness that a nasal vaccine for influenza has had.
“I mean we know with the flu vaccine, the people were more likely to accept being vaccinated if you shot, you know, a little spray up your nose,” said Evans.
“It might get us around a small percentage of the people who don’t want to receive the vaccine from getting it because their perception is it’s not going into my body, it’s just going, you know, up to my nose and everything else.”