Scientists develop chewing gum that could help limit the spread of COVID

Scientists are developing a breakthrough product that could eventually serve as a protective measure against COVID, a chewing gum that they hope will be able to reduce symptoms and limit the spread of highly contagious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Researchers at the Penn School of Dental Medicine with assistance from scientists at the Penn School of Veterinary Medicine and Perelman School of Medicine have been conducting studies on the gum which contains a plant-grown protein that can trap the virus particles inside saliva, slowing transmission from person to person as well as cell to cell in COVID patients.

“That protein is normally used by COVID to enter the cells on infecting a person. But by replicating it, scientists at the Penn School of Dental Medicine have been able to confine the virus to the mouth of a person chewing the gum,” the Daily Mail reported. “The gum contains copies of the ACE2 protein found on cell surfaces, which the coronavirus uses to break into cells and infect them.”

“SARS-CoV-2 replicates in the salivary glands, and we know that when someone who is infected sneezes, coughs, or speaks some of that virus can be expelled and reach others,” Henry Daniell who led the team of researchers told Penn Today. “This gum offers an opportunity to neutralize the virus in the saliva, giving us a simple way to possibly cut down on a source of disease transmission.”

(Image: Screengrab/Molecular Therapy)

“In test-tube experiments using saliva from individuals infected with the Delta or Omicron variants, the virus particles attached themselves to the ACE2 ‘receptors’ in the chewing gum and the viral load fell to undetectable levels, researchers reported in Biomaterials,” according to the Daily Mail.

“The ‘viral trap’ ACE2 proteins in the gum are carried within engineered lettuce cells. A second experimental chewing gum made with bean powder instead of lettuce cells not only traps SARS-CoV-2 particles in lab experiments but also influenza strains, other coronaviruses that cause common colds, and potentially other oral viruses such as human papillomavirus and herpesvirus, according to the paper,” the outlet reported.

(Image: Screengrab/Molecular Therapy)

“To test the chewing gum, the team grew ACE2 in plants, paired with another compound that enables the protein to cross mucosal barriers and facilitates binding, and incorporated the resulting plant material into cinnamon-flavored gum tablets,” Penn Today reported. “Incubating samples obtained from nasopharyngeal swabs from COVID-positive patients with the gum, they showed that the ACE2 present could neutralize SARS-CoV-2 viruses.”

“Henry contacted me and asked if we had samples to test his approach, what kind of samples would be appropriate to test, and whether we could internally validate the level of SARS-CoV-2 virus in the saliva samples,” Ronald Collman, a Penn Medicine virologist and pulmonary and critical care doctor whose team participated in the project told Penn Today. “That led to a cross-school collaboration building on our microbiome studies.”

“Henry’s approach of making the proteins in plants and using them orally is inexpensive, hopefully scalable; it really is clever,” Collman added.

“We are already using masks and other physical barriers to reduce the chance of transmission,” Dr. Daniell said. “This gum could be used as an additional tool in that fight.”

The researchers’ study was published last November in the scientific journal Molecular Therapy.

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