Illinois Tech Researchers Developing Novel COVID-19 Treatment that Targets Human Spike Protein to Stop Infection

Illinois Institute of Technology Researchers File a Provisional Patent for New Inhalable Drug that Shows Promise as a Frontline Therapy for Individuals Infected by COVID-19

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CHICAGO—March 4, 2021—Researchers at Illinois Institute of Technology (Illinois Tech) have filed a provisional patent for CROWNase—a new drug that has the potential to treat COVID-19 infections, including its new international variants, by cutting the spike glycoprotein so that it can no longer infect cells. 

The new model coming out of Illinois Tech works by removing the protective coat of the virus, stopping the virus from infecting human cells and exposing the vulnerable part of the virus to the human immune system. Whereas current vaccines seek to boost the body’s preemptive immune response to the virus entering the system, CROWNase aims to serve as an effective treatment for patients who have already been exposed.

“We have found a human enzyme that inactivates COVID-19, and we have found a way to deliver it to patients in a safe and effective way,” says Associate Professor of Biology Oscar Juarez, the overall lead on the project.

Spike glycoprotein gives the SARS-CoV-2 virus its crown-like exterior, enabling the virus to attach to the human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) and infect human cells. The spike glycoprotein is covered by a coat of human-derived molecules, which help the virus evade the immune system and infect the individual. CROWNase includes a human protein that removes this coat. It also includes the ACE 2 receptor, which helps it bind to viruses.

Researchers at Illinois Tech specifically designed CROWNase to be used in an outpatient setting. The therapy could eventually be developed as an inhalant or nasal spray, but it can be also used as a tablet, injection, suspension, drops or ointment for the eyes, or orally—which has the potential to improve access and delivery.

In addition to Juarez, Illinois Tech Associate Professor of Chemistry David Minh and Research Assistant Professor of Biology Karina Tuz are working to provide advanced molecular modeling, in addition to molecular biology and therapeutics testing. The collaborative effort coming out of the South Side campus hopes to publish preliminary results in a scientific journal shortly while the team concurrently pursues federal grant funding to optimize the stability and activity of the enzyme. If funded, the researchers believe their treatment could enter preclinical trials shortly. 

“We would like CROWNase to treat other coronaviruses in future outbreaks,” Minh says. “We would also try to make the drug effective against influenza and other respiratory viruses.”

As new mutations continue to pop up across the globe, Illinois Tech researchers look to play a role in helping to combat these new SARS-CoV variants that experts warn could impact the global health community for years to come. 

“Our research opens a novel avenue to use human-derived proteins as therapeutic agents against COVID-19 and infectious diseases, in general,” Tuz said.

 

ABOUT ILLINOIS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

Illinois Institute of Technology, also known as Illinois Tech, is a private, technology-focused research university. Illinois Tech is the only university of its kind in Chicago, and its Chicago location offers students access to the world-class resources of a great global metropolis. It offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, computing, architecture, business, design, science and human sciences, and law. One of 22 institutions that comprise the Association of Independent Technological Universities, Illinois Tech provides an exceptional education centered on active learning, and its graduates lead the state and much of the nation in economic prosperity. Illinois Tech uniquely prepares students to succeed in professions that require technological sophistication, an innovative mindset, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Visit iit.edu.