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

A photo of David Baker in front of a chalkboard.

David Baker directs 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 it’s possible to make a similar spray that protects against even more viruses.

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

A leading researcher has designed a nasal spray that he hopes will protect people from getting sick from COVID-19. For him, it’s a first step towards his ultimate goal of creating an anti-virus cocktail that can work against several common infections.

The spray, being developed by David Baker at the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design, primarily aims to prevent the SARS-CoV-2 virus from entering cells and activate the immune system.

Baker’s lab plans to begin the first human trials of the nasal spray later this year to make sure it’s safe and test its effectiveness. The lab has reported 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 the common cold? Baker believes that a protein cocktail, delivered to a person’s nose every few days, could provide significant protection from the most common respiratory viruses.

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

A researcher wearing an eggplant-colored puffer coat and a fabric mask with a cat face works in the laboratory of the Institute for Protein Design.

A researcher at the University for Protein Engineering.Ian C Haydon/UW Institute for Protein Design

To be clear, Baker’s spray is different than a vaccine. Vaccines stimulate the immune system to recognize and fight off an invading pathogen. Baker’s spray contains proteins designed to adhere to the parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus it uses to enter human cells, rendering them inert.

The spray will need to prove itself in several successively larger clinical trials before it becomes more widely available, a process that typically takes years. Even if it gets approval, Baker said there is still no viable business model for this type of therapy, another hurdle that will need to be overcome.

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

Using artificial intelligence, his ultimate goal is to create a protein-filled nasal spray that can block many different viruses.

Baker said researchers could ask an AI engine, which he likened to the DALL-E image generator, to spit out protein blueprints that can thwart rhinoviruses, MERS, SARS-CoV-2 and influenza. Then the protein could be made and placed in a nasal spray.

In theory, entirely new proteins engineered with AI could be created to address very specific problems, like attaching themselves to the right side of a virus to prevent it from gaining a foothold in human cells.

Baker said the engineered proteins are more stable than naturally occurring proteins, so they don’t degrade before making it to the nose. And the proteins are potent, so you can pack many different types of protein into the spray without losing potency.

It will probably be a while before you can say goodbye to the winter cold. But next time you catch a cold, take comfort in knowing it may not always be the case.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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