Can nanotechnology — the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular and supramolecular scale — help in the fight against Covid-19?
Thomas Webster believes it can, for the simple reason the virus consists of a structure of a similar scale as his nanoparticles, Roberto Molar Candanosa of Northeastern University reported in Phys.org.
Since the outbreak began in late 2019, researchers have been racing to learn more about SARS-CoV-2, which is a strain from a family of viruses known as coronavirus for their crown-like shape.
Webster, a chemical engineer who specializes in developing nano-scale medicine and technology to treat diseases, is part of a contingency of scientists that are contributing ideas and technology to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fight the outbreak, the report said.
Webster is proposing particles of similar sizes that could attach to SARS-CoV-2 viruses, disrupting their structure with a combination of infrared light treatment.
That structural change would then halt the ability of the virus to survive and reproduce in the body, the report said.
“You have to think in this size range,” says Webster, Art Zafiropoulo Chair of chemical engineering at Northeastern. “In the nanoscale size range, if you want to detect viruses, if you want to deactivate them.”
At that scale, matter is ultra-small, about ten thousand times smaller than the width of a single strand of hair.
Finding and neutralizing viruses with nanomedicine is at the core of what Webster and other researchers call theranostics, which focuses on combining therapy and diagnosis, the report said.
Using that approach, his lab has specialized in nanoparticles to fight the microbes that cause influenza and tuberculosis.
“It’s not just having one approach to detect whether you have a virus and another approach to use it as a therapy,” he says, “but having the same particle, the same approach, for both your detection and therapy.”
SARS-CoV-2 spreads mostly through tiny droplets of viral particles — from breathing, talking, sneezing, coughing — that enter the body through the eyes, mouth, or nose. Preliminary research also suggests that those germs may survive for days when they attach themselves to countertops, handrails, and other hard surfaces.
Nanoparticles can disable these pathogens even before they break into the body, as they hold on to different objects and surfaces, the report said. His lab has developed materials that can be sprayed on objects to form nanoparticles and attack viruses.
“Even if it was on a surface, on someone’s countertop, or an iPhone,” he says. “It doesn’t mean anything because it’s not the active form of that virus.”
That same technology can be fine-tuned and tweaked to target a wide range of viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. Unlike other novel drugs with large molecular structures, nanoparticles are so small that they can move through our body without disrupting other functions, such as those of the immune system.
“Almost like a surveyor, they can go around your bloodstream,” Webster says. “They can survey your body much easier and under much longer times and try and detect viruses.”