Face masks and hand sanitizers are essential tools for health care workers to stave off the spread of COVID-19. But what if these essentials could be super charged? What if a nasal spray could provide a layer of protection as well as antiviral agents to keep the virus from entering through nasal mucosa or traveling to the lungs? And what if a new kind of sanitizer could provide long-acting protection for the hands and other surfaces?
Long before COVID-19 started making headlines, the Karp lab was working on innovative projects with the goal of clinical translation. Now, when ideas for how to fight viral infections are needed more than ever, bioengineer Jeff Karp, PhD, of the Division of Engineering in Medicine, and his team are determined to build on these platforms but are doing so under constraints the Brigham research community has never experienced before. In the shadow of the pandemic, they are doing everything they can to develop their ideas but must innovate to find resources and a path forward for their projects.
“We have the capabilities, but these are extraordinarily challenging times to conduct research. Of course, it’s orders of magnitude more challenging for our colleagues on the clinical front lines, which is why we’re committed to finding ways to help,” said Karp. Since March 20, the Brigham has shut down its research labs and core facilities except those performing essential functions. Researchers who can continue their work remotely are doing so. “Under these restrictions, we’re trying to refine our ideas and propose what future experiments would look like.”
One of the modes of entry for COVID-19 and other infections into the body is through the nasal system. For the last year and a half, the Karp lab has been developing a material to spray into the nasal mucosa to create a physical coating that can deliver therapeutics. Recently, they envisioned that the coating formed by this spray might act as a protective barrier and capture and kill inhaled viruses. Improved hydration might enhance this effect by increasing nasal breathing and reducing mouth breathing. In addition, the material could be loaded with antiviral agents that could potentially inactivate a large amount of captured viral load.
“We’re trying to develop a nasal spray to form a shield to provide protection against inhaled pathogens and viruses,” said Nitin Joshi, PhD, an instructor of medicine in the Karp lab.
The team has expertise in selecting and working with materials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s list of materials Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). Using these materials, the team has been developing a solution that, once inside the nasal mucosa, will solidify into a thin barrier and will release GRAS anti-viral agents to deactivate the virus. So far, the team has tested the solution in nasal tissue in the lab. Preliminary experiments in a mouse model suggest that it does not impact breathing or cause irritation.
The team is collaborating with Yohannes Tesfaigzi, PhD, a member of the faculty in the Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Division. Tesfaigzi has animal models of inhaled infection to evaluate if the engineered formulations can reduce or prevent virus from reaching the lungs.
Before COVID-19, the team had been developing the spray in the context of a different application. But they are now turning their attention to focus on the new virus.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can kill viruses and bacteria but are only effective for a short time. Using GRAS materials, the Karp lab aims to develop topical formulations that can achieve more efficient and sustained viral kill. These long-acting sanitizers could be used on different surfaces, not just the hands.
“Hand sanitizers provide excellent defense in terms of protection from transmission but need to be applied every time you touch any surface that may be contaminated with a virus,” said Joshi. “They can also leach out lipids from the skin resulting in dry skin and cracks. Our idea is to develop a consumer product that could last several hours without causing dry skin and deactivates the virus as soon as it touches the hand.”
The team envisions a product that would be similar to a moisturizer. They have been working with hydrogels — materials with the consistency of butter and composed of GRAS agents to kill the virus and remain on the skin for hours after application.
The Karp lab is also looking for ways to decontaminate surgical gowns, masks and gloves before removal. Karp is also involved in the Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation in helping with new designs for n95 respirators.
“We’ve positioned our projects toward addressing elements of this pandemic, but we’re still working to get the right resources in place under the current circumstances,” said Karp. “We are open to support, collaboration and help from any corner so that we can continue to develop these materials to help our clinical colleagues.”
Update April 15: The Karp lab has received Stepping Strong funding to accelerate the development of its anti-viral nasal spray. More details about The Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Center for Trauma Innovation can be found here.