Although the first COVID-19 vaccines approved by governmental regulators are slowly being rolled out in certain countries, a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is not currently available worldwide. To continue fighting the pandemic, researchers are exploring new and innovative ways to protect people from SARS-CoV-2. One team of researchers from Stanford University is currently working on an unconventional phase I study that aims to determine whether nasal drops containing chicken antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 can temporarily protect people against COVID-19. If the nasal drops prove effective, they could provide an affordable and widely accessible method of preventing COVID-19.
Chicken Antibodies: A Defense Against COVID-19?
The research involves 48 participants at Linear Clinical Research in Perth, Australia. At this stage of development, researchers are only focusing on the safety of the treatment and how long the antibodies remain in the nose. The phase I trial is part of SPARK, a nonprofit launched by Daria Mochly-Rosen in 2006 to provide a cost-effective model to generate proof-of-concept studies using innovative academic methods as well as industry standards. Mochly-Rosen, a protein chemist at Stanford, is also leading the project.
Harvesting Chicken Antibodies
Wondering why the researchers aren’t using lab-made antibodies instead? The development and manufacture of lab-made antibodies for human treatments is expensive and usually requires a multitude of cells grown in bioreactors. Chicken antibodies, on the other hand, can be created by researchers by injecting the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein into the chest of a chicken. The chickens don’t get sick because the virus triggers an immune response. Part of that response is the laying of eggs that contain antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.
Antibodies are also known as immunoglobulins, and the specific type of antibody produced by the chickens to defend against COVID-19 is called immunoglobulin Y (IgY). It is found in high concentrations in egg yolk. After harvesting the yolks from the chicken eggs, researchers can extract the IgY and formulate nasal drops. When applied, the antibodies in the nasal drops will coat the surfaces inside the nose and throat, potentially acting as a barrier against the coronavirus.
Possible Benefits of the Treatment
Although there is currently no data demonstrating that the theory will work, the research team hopes that the chicken antibodies in the nasal drops will provide immediate protection to users. The nasal drops could be extremely useful for first responders, essential workers, residents of senior living facilities, and anyone who has a higher risk of developing serious symptoms due to COVID-19. The treatment could last for several hours, allowing people to use the nasal drops before engaging in higher-risk activities, such as traveling by plane, working in a crowded office, or joining a family party. It is unknown how long the antibodies will last before degrading or how fast the nose will clear away the nasal drops. In addition, it is unknown whether humans will develop an immune response against the chicken antibodies, rendering the treatment ineffective.
Although other nasal sprays designed to protect against COVID-19 are in development, the project launched by Stanford is remarkably low-tech and affordable. It doesn’t require sophisticated equipment or complex procedures, which means it could be replicated at locations around the world for a low cost. In fact, the researchers say a dose of the nasal drops could cost just $1. The product is also painless and easy to use.
What Happens Next?
COVID-19 patients are virtually nonexistent in Australia at the moment. So, if the researchers are able to demonstrate that the nasal drops with chicken antibodies are safe and don’t produce significant side effects, SPARK is hoping to launch a phase II clinical trial in the United States. That next phase of the research would focus on efficacy.
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