Promising New COVID-19 Treatment in Development at Illinois Tech

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By Linsey Maughan

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A new COVID-19 treatment in early stages of development at Illinois Institute of Technology—an inhaled therapy called CROWNase—shows the potential to limit COVID-19 infection. The treatment is patent pending, and its inventors are now working to advance the project to further stages of testing and development.

Leading the overall project is Associate Professor of Biology Oscar Juarez, with support from Associate Professor of Chemistry David Minh with molecular modeling, and support from Research Assistant Professor of Biology Karina Tuz with molecular biology and therapeutics testing. Juarez conceptualized the project, brainstorming ways to target human processes that the virus depends on in order to thrive. The researchers have found success by targeting their therapy toward the human side of the interaction between the virus and the immune system, rather than targeting the virus itself.

“This is a novel idea; 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,” Juarez says.

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 works by removing the coating from the spike glycoprotein, exposing the protein component of the spike to the immune system and stopping the virus from infecting human cells. CROWNase also includes the ACE 2 receptor, which helps it bind to viruses.

The inhaled therapy is designed for use in an outpatient setting. The researchers say that in addition to being administered as an inhalant, CROWNase could also be administered as a nasal spray, tablet, injection, suspension, drops or ointment for the eyes, or orally.

The team is now working on a paper detailing its preliminary results, which it plans to publish in a scientific journal. It has shown through its research that the human enzyme the team is working with prevents a cell-based model of viral infection. The team has also applied for federal grant funding to optimize the stability and activity of the enzyme. If funded, the researchers believe their treatment could enter preclinical trials within three years. The technology is also available to investors for licensing.

The team is interested in developing CROWNase as an option for treating emerging COVID-19 strains that vaccines may not be effective against as well as other infections produced by viruses. They are hopeful the therapy holds the potential to prevent or cure COVID-19 and other enveloped viruses.

“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.”

Individuals interested in learning more about this research or supporting the project may contact the team (ojuarez@iit.edu, dminh@iit.edu, ktuz@iit.edu).