Researchers around the world are racing to find treatments to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused more than 16 million human infections globally.

COVID-19 is caused by the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. A person becomes infected when the virus makes its way through the mouth or nose into the lungs and from there into the cells that line the inside of our lungs. 

Exactly how the virus gets past the protective barriers in our lungs is unknown, but scientists have recently discovered that SARS-CoV-2 binds to a type of carbohydrate-based polymer called glycosaminoglycan (GAG). The widely used anticoagulant heparin belongs to this class of natural polymers, and hospitalized patients with COVID-19 who were administered heparin to treat blood clotting disorders also experienced a lower risk of dying from COVID-19.

Researchers at Virginia Tech and the University of Georgia are collaborating to explore whether the tendency of the virus to bind to carbohydrate-based polymers, such as heparin, can be used to develop virus-trapping gels and surfaces.

“The virus passes a large number of carbohydrate-based molecules on its way into the cells in our body,” explained Maren Roman, associate professor of sustainable biomaterials in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment and affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “If we can determine which carbohydrates or carbohydrate chains the virus binds to, we can develop materials that work like a fly trap and capture virus particles before they get into our bodies.”

“We will use cutting-edge computational tools to study which carbohydrate molecules bind most strongly to the virus,” said Robert Woods, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and chemistry, at the University of Georgia’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. “This work is a natural extension of our prior work on the virus, which has given us detailed computer models of one of its surface proteins, namely the Spike protein. This protein is responsible for the virus’s ability to enter cells and its tendency to bind to carbohydrates.”

“Once we know exactly which carbohydrates the virus binds to, we will synthesize materials that contain these carbohydrates on a tether,” added Michael Schulz, assistant professor of chemistry in the College of Science at Virginia Tech. “We hypothesize that these materials can filter out virus particles from liquids and possibly even air streams.”

The research is supported by a $200,000 National Science Foundation RAPID COVID-19 grant, with contributions from the Division of Materials Research and the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences.

“Our ability to successfully stop this pandemic depends on researchers from different fields and even institutions joining forces and collaborating.” Roman said. “Only together will we figure this virus out.”

Related stories:

Faculty answer the COVID-19 research call

Multiuniversity partnership receives $23 million NSF grant to accelerate U.S. research on glycomaterials