A scientist uses AI to design a nasal spray that can protect us from the flu, COVID and the common cold

A photo of David Baker in front of a whiteboard.

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 with tailor-made proteins that can protect against COVID-19.

  • David Baker believes it is possible to create a similar spray that protects against even more viruses.

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

A leading researcher has designed a nasal spray that he hopes will protect people from getting COVID-19. For him, it’s a first step toward his ultimate goal: creating a virus-fighting cocktail that could work against several common infections.

The spray, developed by David Baker of the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington, aims to prevent the SARS-CoV-2 virus from entering cells and activating the immune system in the first place.

Baker’s lab plans to begin early human testing of the nasal spray later this year to make sure it’s safe and to 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 cocktail of proteins, released into a person’s nose every few days, could provide meaningful protection against most common respiratory viruses.

Baker’s lab has spawned 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.

In the lab at the Institute for Protein Design, a researcher works in an eggplant-colored puffer coat and a fabric mask with a cat's face on it.

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

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

The spray will have to prove itself in several successive larger clinical trials before it becomes more widely available, a process that typically takes years. Even if approved, Baker said there isn’t yet a viable business model for these kinds of therapies — another hurdle to overcome.

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

Using AI, his ultimate goal is to create a nasal spray packed with proteins that can block many different viruses.

Baker said researchers could ask an AI engine, which he compared to the image generator DALL-E, to spit out protein designs that could counter rhinovirus, MERS, SARS-CoV-2 and flu. The proteins could then be manufactured and put into a nasal spray.

Entirely new proteins designed with AI could theoretically be created to address very specific problems, such as sticking to the right part of a virus to prevent it from gaining a foothold in human cells.

Baker said engineered proteins are more stable than naturally occurring proteins, so they won’t break down before they reach the nose. And the proteins are powerful, so you can put many different types of proteins in the spray without losing effectiveness.

It will probably be a while before we can say goodbye to the winter sniffles. But the next time you catch a cold, take comfort in the knowledge that it won’t always be that way.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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