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First it was the quest for Covid tests. Then scientists scrambled to develop vaccines. Now millions are protected.

But some are reluctant to get the inoculation and that means new variants can threaten health. So brilliant minds are once again back in the lab, this time rushing to find a treatment so anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 will not succumb to the disease.

Pfizer was the first to launch human trials for its pill. Illinois Institute of Technology has an inhaled drug in the works.

And now University of Chicago is applying cancer research to Covid.

Before the pandemic, cancer researchers at University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering were working on a way to use the tiniest particles, known as nanoparticles, to kill tumor cells.

But their concept was moving slowly. Until Covid hit.

Min Chen, PhD is a researcher.

“We started to think how we can actually do anything to help prevent the pandemic,” Chen said.

It was Chen’s idea to apply their cancer treatment platform called a nanotrap to COVID-19, the infection caused by SARS-CoV-2.

Jun Huang, PhD is a professor at University of Chicago.

“Nanotrap is a very small particle, the size of just one percent of your hair thickness,” Huang said. “And it can catch and destroy the coronavirus.”

Unlike a typical human cell, the team’s nanotraps are loaded with ACE2 receptors, the same receptor the SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins bind to in the human body.

Jillian Rosenberg is a U of C grad student and part of the research team.

“The ACE2 we have on the nanotraps surface is much more than a typical lung cell would have,” she said. “So the virus immediately sees the nanotrap and binds to it instead of your cells.”

Once the nanotraps gobble up the virus, Rosenberg says the body’s immune system begins to work.

“It signals to the body’s own immune system to grab it degrade it and kill it,” she said. “So both nanotrap and the virus are going to be killed by your own immune system.”

The researchers had an opportunity to test the treatment in human lungs.

“This is a set of human lungs not viable for transplant,” Rosenberg said.

In the lab, the donor lungs were hooked up to a ventilator, given a blood source and injected with the virus then the nanotraps were sent in. After several hours, the team tested the tissue.

“We found that the nanotraps completely eradicated the infection,” Rosenberg said. “It was really exciting, really exciting … When we got the data the next day that it worked it was really exciting because we don’t get these lungs very often. And it worked on the first try, which is very incredible.”

The nanotraps themselves are stored in liquid that could be applied to the virus’ earliest points of entry.

“This is what could be formulated into a nasal spray, an eye drop, an IV injection,” Rosenberg said. “It’s very flexible.”

Other experiments, including one using the live virus at Argonne National Labs, showed the nanotraps inhibited the virus 10 times better than antibodies typically triggered by Covid infection.  And the team believes the nanotraps will yield power over variants as well.

“Then we know this great potential, how this nanomedicine can really help to prevent this disease,” Chen said.

Looking ahead to their cancer research, might the nanotraps change the trajectory of their cancer research?

“I believe so I think it represents the future to me,” Huang said.

Huang and his colleagues now hope to handoff their platform to a pharmaceutical company that can help take the technology to the next level and ultimately, drug store shelves.