Formula Developed to Combat HIV Could Work as Novel Coronavirus Preventive

Lisa Rohan in a white coat A nasal spray derived from algae and a plant in the tobacco family could offer a preventive measure for COVID-19.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Louisville are making a molecule called Q-griffithsin, using an anti-viral protein found in the New Zealand red algae Griffithsia, and Nicotiana benthamiana, a plant in the same family as tobacco plants. The former has been shown to bind to other coronaviruses’ surfaces, making it unable to infect healthy cells.

“The nice thing about Q-griffithsin is that it has a number of activities against other viruses and pathogens,” said Pitt’s Lisa Rohan, one of the lead researchers on the collaboration. “It’s been shown to be effective against Ebola, herpes and hepatitis, as well as a broad spectrum of coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS.”

Rohan is a professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Pitt’s School of Pharmacy, as well as an investigator at the Magee-Womens Research Institute. 

The team is envisioning a nasal spray aimed toward individuals at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, such as health care and emergency medical service workers, as well as people with weak immune systems. While the spray wouldn’t replace any successful COVID-19 vaccines developed in the future, it could provide an effective level of defense against the coronavirus for immune-compromised individuals who can’t take vaccines, Rohan said.

“The vaccine will also be specific for this particular coronavirus, while the nasal spray can be used for a broad spectrum of diseases,” she said. “Also, given Q-griffithsin’s broad spectrum activity against coronaviruses, it has potential to thwart future infections.”

The drug has been formulated into a nasal spray to fight COVID-19 because the virus typically enters through the nose and mouth, which the spray can target before it infects the lungs and creates more serious complications.

Though the proteins are being manufactured using tobacco plants, people who use the spray won’t receive the harmful effects associated with ingesting or inhaling tobacco. Plants are typically regarded as a safe production platform for biopharmaceuticals.

“The end result is all protein, so there’s nothing from the plant itself. We purify the plant, so there’s no harmful components left. It’s like when people use bacteria to make antibiotics,” said Kenneth Palmer, the Helmsley Chair in Pharmaceutical Plant-based Research at Louisville.

Rohan’s lab originally developed formulations for Q-griffithsin as a potential preventive for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Palmer’s lab has also been testing Q-griffithsin on a number of viruses. The HIV preventive project received funding from the National Institutes of Health’s Division of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. However, after seeing the fast spread of COVID-19, Rohan and Palmer looked back at previous data indicating the effectiveness of Q-griffithsin against other forms of coronavirus.

“This is a product that already has a nice safety profile and has an application that has allowed it move forward in the clinic. We believe this is a product we can rapidly advance in a realistic way,” Rohan said. “With adequate funding, we’re hoping to move the product into the clinic before the end of the year.”