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News Release

Nano-scale sponges for COVID-19 are already a win for San Diego

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Albert P. Pisano, Dean of the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

A commentary by Albert P. Pisano
Dean, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

San Diego, Calif., June. 17, 2020 -- A team of nanoengineers at the University of California San Diego is taking a unique approach to COVID-19 drug discovery. Their strategy is to intercept virus particles and neutralize them with nano-scale sponges before the virus can enter healthy human cells and replicate.

On June 17, 2020 the team, which is led by UC San Diego nanoengineering professor Liangfang Zhang, published the first set of data on this new approach to COVID-19 therapeutics. The experiments, described in the peer-reviewed journal Nano Letters, show that the nano-scale sponges reduce the infectivity of SARS-CoV-2 by about 90%. (Collaborators at Boston University's National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories tested the nano-scale sponges with live SARS-CoV-2 virus.) Watch our animation here. Visit the nanosponge website.

It’s far too early to know if these nanosponges will make the leap from bench to bedside. But given the global need, these researchers are working as intently as possible.

I am hopeful for any and all safe and effective drugs and vaccines that will help us to reduce and eventually stop the human suffering this global pandemic is causing. As we focus on these immediate medical needs, we must also reverse the underlying inequities in the communities that are suffering disproportionately from this pandemic.

As the dean of the #9 engineering school in the USA, I have additional reasons to be talking about these nanosponges.

As an engineer and a problem solver, I like the big idea behind these nanosponges. 

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Making nanosponges infographic. Image credit: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering / David Baillot

The engineers repurpose fragments of human cell membranes to create decoys. These decoys then bind to the virus, which prevents the virus from entering live cells where it will replicate and continue the infection.  

There's another aspect of this story that I'm drawing attention to in order to make a larger point. These nanosponges did not appear out of thin air back in January when troubling reports started coming in.

Professor Liangfang Zhang leveraged a platform technology his team has been developing and methodically maturing for a decade. When Liangfang understood the origins of COVID-19, he almost immediately decided to pivot not just his research efforts but his whole technology platform. A platform that his lab here at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering is leveraging to develop solutions for HIV, sepsis, rheumatoid arthritis, bacterial pneumonia, antibiotic-resistant infections and more. The startup company Zhang founded to transfer this work into the clinic, called Cellics Therapeutics, aims to start clinical trials on red blood cell nanosponges for antibiotic-resistant bacterial pneumonia next year.

This is the larger point that I'm trying to draw attention to. As a nation, we need to get better at developing, improving and leveraging platform technologies that have the potential to have outsized positive impacts compared to the investments required to create them.

As an electronics guy of a certain age, it's easy to point out, as something to emulate, platform technologies like low-cost chip design tools. These tools were critical for the birth of the micro-electronics and personal computer revolutions here in the United States.

Indeed, much of the innovation and technological successes of the past have been based on the development of platform technologies. We can’t afford to miss out on the benefits bestowed on the nations that have the foresight, trained teams, and support needed to develop and leverage the platform technologies of the future.

We can’t predict the future, but we know that our societies will need to be far more resilient than they are today. At the same time, the horrific events of the last few weeks remind us just how much work we must do to make our societies more just as well.

Having a deep bench of home-grown platform technologies that can be repurposed to address emerging and changing needs in society will go a long way towards both resilience and economic growth. In parallel, it is our responsibility to make sure our future technologists fully reflect the true diversity of our nation.

We need to be strategic about creating and supporting the innovation and education ecosystems that will give rise to the next generations of platform technologies and the people who will invent these platform technologies. I’m actively working to develop these ideas here at the Jacobs School of Engineering. I am also engaged in this project through committee work for various national organizations including the National Academy of Engineering and the U.S. Council on Competitiveness.

In the meantime, I am anxiously following the progress of all many innovators around the nation and the world who are building on what we know and what we don't know to solve the COVID-19 pandemic. 



Media Contacts

Daniel Kane
Jacobs School of Engineering