Imagine a drug that you spray into your nose that could prevent COVID-19.

That’s one of the 17 COVID-19-related projects that Pitt Health Sciences researchers are working on, funded by $900,000 from the University of Pittsburgh’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI). These grants are designed to get promising research off the ground with the hope of garnering larger, additional grants.

Dr. Lisa Rohan, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy and Magee-Womens Research Institute & Foundation, is leading the nasal spray project with collaborators at the University of Louisville.

“This is not like a vaccine,” says Rohan. “This will be more of an on-demand type product. (You’d be) spraying it daily in each nostril. If you’re going to the grocery store, or into work, it would hopefully provide protection while you’re on your shift.

“We’re looking at a product for first responders and healthcare workers so that they would have some means of protection.”

The nasal spray contains a molecule called Q-griffithsin that has antiviral properties.

“This is a product that we were exploring as an HIV-prevention product, but it also has activity against a number of coronaviruses, like SARS and MERS,” says Rohan. “My collaborators at the University of Louisville found, in respiratory tissues, that it has activity against the virus that causes COVID-19 as well.”

They’ve determined that a nasal spray is the best delivery method.

“We feel a nasal spray is perfect … to neutralize the virus before it gets into the lungs and causes a lot of clinical complications,” says Rohan.

The project has some properties that a vaccine would not.

“One advantage it has over vaccines is its broad spectrum of activity against a number of different coronaviruses,” says Rohan. “The other benefit is for immunocompromised people, who aren’t successful with vaccines — so this is an alternative for them as well.”

Researcher Lin Wang with the nasal spray. Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh.

Test results are expected soon.

“We’ll have animal (test) results in the next month,” says Rohan. “Ultimately, we’d like to see this product advance to human studies later this year.”

Rohan’s team received $50,000 from CTSI for the project.

Other COVID-19 projects funded by CTSI include an investigation of what the SARS-CoV-2 virus does to the lungs on a cellular level, learning what it means for unborn babies if their mother is infected with COVID-19 and detecting biomarkers to predict how patients will fare with the disease.

Funding for the projects was provided by CTSI, Pitt’s Office of the Provost and Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research and the DSF Charitable Foundation.

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.