'Nanosponge' Technology May Help Prevent and Treat COVID-19


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Key Takeaways

  • New medical technology called nanosponges may help prevent and fight COVID-19.
  • Nanosponges can attract the virus and neutralize it.
  • There is potential for nanosponge technology beyond COVID-19.

While there's still no specific treatment for COVID-19, a team of researchers at the University of California San Diego is working to change that. The researchers have invented a treatment that involves using “nanosponges” to target and neutralize SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

A summary of the team’s work was published in the journal Nano Letters in June, suggestion the technology has potential to be a major tool in the fight against COVID-19.

"Cellular nanosponges have shown great promise in inhibiting the infectivity of SARS-CoV-2 and protecting host cells,” Liangfang Zhang, PhD, an associate professor of nanoengineering at the University of California San Diego who leads the team that created the cellular nanosponges, tells Verywell.

Zhang and his team have been working on nanosponge technology for nearly a decade. However, once the global pandemic started, Zhang realized his nanosponges had the potential to help fight COVID-19.

So far, these nanosponges have only been tested in cell culture, meaning a controlled, artificial environment, but Zhang says his team’s “immediate next step” is to test these nanosponges in animal models.

What This Means For You

Nanosponge technology has a lot of potential in the fight against COVID-19, but there's still a lot about this treatment that needs to be investigated. Time—and more research—will show if it will be an effective treatment in humans down the road.

How Do Nanosponges Work?

The nanosponges are nanoparticles (i.e., ultra-fine particles) that are cloaked in human lung cell membranes and human immune cell membranes. They can attract and neutralize SARS-CoV-2 and cause the virus to lose its ability to hijack a person’s cells and reproduce.

That’s different from other anti-viral medications, which attempt to find targets to go after within a pathogen. But nanosponges essentially create decoys to try to draw in SARS-CoV-2 and then get rid of the virus.

Zhang says that nanosponges may be used both as a treatment after a person has been infected with COVID-19 and as a preventive treatment, given that the nanosponges can stay in the lungs for a period of time.

How Are Nanosponges Administered?

Nanosponge technology is still in its early stages, and there’s a lot Zhang and his team still need to test. However, Zhang says that there are a few potential ways nanosponges can be delivered to patients.

One is by sending the sponges directly into the lungs in people who are intubated. Another is through an inhaler, similar to how people with asthma take medication. The nanosponges may even be able to be delivered through an IV, Zhang says.

Once administered, they can flood the lungs with a trillion or more nanosponges that work to draw SARS-CoV-2 away from healthy cells. And, once the virus binds with a nanosponge, it’s no longer infective. It will be attacked by healthy immune cells and digested, Zhang explains.

When Will Nanosponges Be Available to the Public?

Research on this technology is ongoing. The next step is animal trials and, if those go well, Zhang and his team plan to test nanosponges in human clinical trials.

“This will take at least one year, and perhaps longer,” he says, stressing that forming and testing new technology takes time. “We are doing the important work that is necessary to determine if these cellular nanosponges are ready to make the jump from the research lab to the hospital."

It's important to note that nanosponge technology for COVID-19 is still in its infancy, and many more aspects need to be worked out.

"The concept is interesting, but the data are very preliminary and it needs to be tested in humans," Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and an associate professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University who is not working on nanosponge technology, tells Verywell.

Watkins expressed concerns that the sponges could spark an immune response in human lungs, causing even more health problems for someone with COVID-19. "That is one of the last things a person struggling with COVID-19 would need," Watkins says.

What Else Can Nanosponges Treat?

Zhang acknowledges that his technology may not even be needed for COVID-19 by the time it’s fully developed.

“No one knows what the world will need in one year in terms of COVID-19,” he says.

He is hopeful his technology could be used for other viruses and health conditions, including HIV, sepsis, rheumatoid arthritis, bacterial pneumonia, and antibiotic-resistant infections, among others.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Zhang Q, Honko A, Zhou J, Gong H, et al. Cellular nanosponges inhibit SARS-CoV-2 infectivity. Nano Lett. June 27, 2020:20(7):5570–5574. doi:10.1021/acs.nanolett.0c02278

  2. Vardanyan R, Hruby V. Antiviral DrugsSynthesis of Best-Seller Drugs. 2016:687-736. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-411492-0.00034-1

By Korin Miller
Korin Miller is a health and lifestyle journalist who has been published in The Washington Post, Prevention, SELF, Women's Health, The Bump, and Yahoo, among other outlets.