Learn about nanotechnology and nanoparticles in the context of COVID-19. Join Alevtina Studenikina (Princeton University '23) and Neyci Valencia (Princeton University '23) as they discuss nanotechnology, vaccines, COVID-19, and proteins!
Casual Chatting about:
Past interest in nanotechnology
Graphene (looking at rGO under a microscope in the Electrochemical Energy Conversion lab at LMSU where they were using it to develop better carbon-based cathodes for lithium-metal batteries)
Love of learning about how things work on a small scale and amazement at the power of nanotech in almost every sector of society and technology
Alevtina: Hello and welcome to the Insight Spark Podcast! My name is Alev Studenikina; I am a rising junior in the Chemistry department at Princeton University
Neyci: And my name is Neyci Guiterrez-Valencia, and I’m also a rising junior in the Chemistry department at Princeton University :)
Alevtina: Today our topic is Nanoparticles against Coronavirus: how scientists are using nanotechnology to fight COVID-19. I wrote four articles spotlighting different uses of nanostructures in both vaccine design and therapeutics, which also gave me the opportunity to explain a little bit about the biology of SARS-CoV-2 and the human body.
I invited my dear friend Neyci to discuss this with me - as a way to provide an overview of the things I wrote and also hopefully to look at some of this material from a different perspective. In my first article, I wrote about lipid nanoparticles - LNPs - in the mRNA vaccines
Alevtina: Tell me, did you know about the function of these nanoparticles before you went to get your first shot of Pfizer?
Neyci: I don't think I had ever thought about them at all, to be honest. I was too happy to get my shot to think about it!
Alevtina: I’m actually a little embarrassed to admit that I did not know about the function of mRNA vaccines until researching it. It is super exciting that this technology that was envisioned over 30 years ago is being put to such good use right now.
Neyci: Yeah, it is crazy that the Pfizer-BionTech and the Moderna vaccines are the first-ever mRNA vaccines to be licensed for use in humans.
Alevtina: Anyway, I was so amazed to discover that nanoparticles play a role in mRNA delivery - as I mentioned, lipid nanoparticles or LNPs are the key ingredients in COVID-19 vaccines as they sheathe mRNA enabling both protection and delivery. There are four components to LNPs: ionizable lipids, polyethylene glycol, cholesterol, and phospholipids. As I read in a Nature Review article, “It was a long road to optimizing lipid nanoparticle formulations for nucleic acid delivery”. They give the example of patisiran: “a lipid nanoparticle-based short interfering RNA (siRNA) drug for the treatment of polyneuropathies induced by hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis, and it was the first siRNA-based drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018. To achieve clinical efficacy, every aspect of the lipid nanoparticle formulation had to be optimized, and more than 300 ionizable lipids had to be screened.”
Neyci: I think it is very important for everyone to know that even though this technology is very new, it has been tested extensively as you have mentioned. This has been in progress for almost 30 years, and it is this previous effort that brought us the vaccine in a record time.
Alevtina: Moving on, in my second piece I wrote about mosaic nanoparticles being used as a vaccine against many coronaviruses. I was intrigued by the article that I based this on because the authors were interested in creating a vaccine against multiple coronaviruses at once and I was also fascinated by the image of the nanoparticle accompanying the report. The idea that you can just mix-and-match different antigens and simply stick them onto this protein cage blew my mind. As someone who works in an organic synthesis lab, Neyci, do you still feel amazed at the feats that chemistry can achieve today, the control that we have on the molecules that we create?
Neyci: yes, I am always amazed not only at the possibilities that nature gives us but also at the human inventiveness behind the use of nature's gifts and use them in our favor. I think that the fact that we can get to products that used to exist only in nature, or nowhere at all, with great precision is always worthy or admiration.
Alevtina: Have you heard of the SpyCatcher/SpyTag before?
Neyci: I had not, I had never worked with such a peptide before.
Alevtina: The next thing that I wrote about was actually also a nanovaccine - but this time an inhalable one! The research that I based this article on came from the Tianjin University in China, but inhalable COVID vaccines are actually a really hot topic right now, with startups in China, UK, India, and the US. Inhalable vaccines could be potentially superior to the traditional shot-in-the-arm immunizations because they mimic the route of entry of coronavirus and they are also definitely easier to administer.
Like the flu shot?
Neyci: so by mimicking its entry mechanism you could better react to it when exposed to the real covid infection entering through your nose? Does the immune system remember such a thing?
Alevtina: Another cool thing about this vaccine is that it is biomimetic: i.e. it resembles the SARS-CoV-2 particle itself. (After all, viruses are naturally-occurring nanoparticles)
Neyci: We always look to nature as inspiration for new research, so it makes sense that someone would try to use nature as their inspiration to tackle such a big issue.
Alevtina: Finally, I shifted from nanovaccines to nanotherapeutics, describing a novel drug against coronavirus - a decoy protein that is almost exactly like the protein that SARS-CoV-2 uses to gain entry into the cells, except that it is not attached to the cell membrane but is free in solution in the bloodstream.
Neyci: this reminds me of how some drugs compete against viruses to attach themselves to the receptors associated with the proteins they use! It seems like the perfect way to take advantage of the virus' own attack mechanism.
Alevtina: Thank you for listening to this Insight Spark podcast, and we hope that you check out the wonderful work that my colleagues have produced over the past months!
Last Fact Checked on June 1st, 2021.