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CHICAGO — Its earliest point of entry is often the nose or eyes, then SARS-CoV-2 works its way through the nasal passages to the lungs. But what if a puff of an inhaler could stop the virus in its tracks? 

Inside of a lab in the shadow of the Illinois Institute of Technology tower in Chicago, the team of researchers are busy and at an adjacent, busy intersection. Their campus still closed to visitors but the shutdown hasn’t slowed the science. 

Like so many who pivoted when the pandemic hit, associate professor of biology Oscar Juarez and his colleagues set their eyes on the spikes. 

“We are using a human enzyme that can inactivate the COVID-19 virus,” he said. “The basic idea is if we were to inactivate the spike protein, we can stop the infection of the virus.”

They’re built to bind, most notably to human cells. The viral particles first settle in the nasal passages. The earliest point of entry is also a possible passageway for the experimental drug Juarez and his team call CROWNase.

“We are designing this treatment to be stable in aerosols so it can be delivered to patients through inhalers,” Juarez said.

The drug is a mixture of two different proteins found in humans. One strips the spike of its protective coating leaving it exposed to the immune system. The other, an ACE-2 receptor, helps the drug bind to the virus. Together, they dismantle the spikes.

“It can be prophylactic,” Juarez said. “And we do not think it will have any major toxicities or any major side effects against the patients, even ones that are healthy.”

The team said CROWNase can be inhaled, injected or swallowed in pill form.

“One of the things people are not aware is that we have had, in recent years, three different outbreaks of coronavirus outbreaks; SARS, MERS, COVID-19,” Juarez said. “We were totally unprepared for any of these diseases and we have to plan for the future.”

Animal and ultimately human trials are the next steps. In the meantime, the researchers hope to find support for their novel treatment, which appears to work against other coronaviruses and variants, from outside investors or pharmaceutical companies.