That durability makes these molecules easy to transport, and easy to administer in a variety of ways, perhaps by injecting them into the bloodstream as a treatment for an ongoing infection.
The two designer molecules also both engage the virus in a super-tight squeeze, allowing less to do more. “If you have something that binds this well, you don’t have to use as much,” said Attabey Rodríguez Benítez, a biochemist at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the research. “That means you’re getting more bang for your buck.”
Both research groups are exploring their products as potential tools not only to combat infection but also to prevent it outright, somewhat like a short-lived vaccine. In a series of experiments described in their paper, the Neoleukin team misted their ACE-2 decoy into the noses of hamsters, then exposed the animals to the coronavirus. The untreated hamsters fell dangerously ill, but the hamsters that received the nasal spray fared far better.
Dr. Carter and her colleagues are currently running similar experiments with their mini-binder, and seeing comparable results.
These findings might not translate into humans, the researchers cautioned. And neither team has yet worked out a perfect way to administer their products into animals or people.
Down the line, there may yet be opportunities for the two types of designer proteins to work together — if not in the same product, then at least in the same war, as the pandemic rages on. “It’s very complementary,” Dr. Carter said. If all goes well, molecules like these could join the growing arsenal of public health measures and drugs already in place to fight the virus, she said: “This is another tool you could have.”
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