Corona Research at the Potsdam Science Park

Press Release | Corona Drugs, Antiviral Respiratory Masks, and Novel Testing Methods — At the Potsdam Science Park, institutes and companies are working on therapeutic options and solutions to further curb the spread of the corona virus or to accelerate the healing of patients. In the next few years, the research findings could already bring the first corona drugs, antiviral respiratory masks, improved corona tests, or masks with integrated corona tests to the market. The approaches and application scenarios are extremely promising.

BEAT-COVID – Research on a New Drug against Covid-19

Scientists in Potsdam-Golm and at four other Fraunhofer locations are currently conducting intense research on drugs against the coronavirus as part of the BEAT-COVID project. They are developing novel therapeutic strategies and building platform technologies to enable the targeted and rapid development of new drugs against future pathogens that are still unknown today. Dr. Ruben R. Rosencrantz from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP at the Potsdam Science Park is collaborating with his research groups to develop a drug to combat SARS-CoV-2. This involves RNA agents that should make therapy against Covid-19 possible in the future. The idea is to use the drug as an inhalation spray to deliver the active ingredient directly into the respiratory tract. The active ingredient inhibits the entry of SARS-CoV-2 into the cell by blocking the docking sites of the virus on the cell. Alternatively, the replication of viruses that have already entered the cell is suppressed. To enable the body to better absorb the active ingredient, Dr. Rosencrantz’s research group is working on biofunctionalized polymers. These form a kind of protective layer around the RNA so that it can penetrate the mucus layer of the respiratory tract quickly and, above all, undamaged, and then take effect in the cells. The spray is intended to help infected individuals overcome the disease more quickly and to prevent or reduce severe disease progression. If all continues to go well, Dr. Rosencrantz estimates that the drug could be on the market in a few years.

“Next Generation Protective Textiles”: The Respiratory Mask Revolution

Respiratory protection masks could soon experience a small revolution: they will be able to already inactivate viruses on their surface and will be washable at 40 °C. This is precisely what Dr. Katja Uhlig and Dr. Sebastian Kersting from the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology, Institute Branch Bioanalytics and Bioprocesses IZI-BB, among others, are researching in collaboration with Dr. Erik Wischerhoff from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP. Antimicrobial peptides, or AMPs for short, are to be used to inactivate coronaviruses on respirators. These have proven to be extremely efficient in eliminating bacteria or viruses on surfaces. The challenge: if the respiratory mask becomes contaminated, for example by inactivated viruses, the AMPs lose their effectiveness. The solution: responsive polymers. These polymers take on repellent properties under the influence of temperature – for example, in a 40 °C wash – and thus allow the antiviral surface to regenerate. In simpler terms, the inactivated viruses are easily rinsed off by warm water and the antiviral efficacy is fully restored. In this way, a respirator could be cleaned and reused many times. The research into antiviral, washable respiratory masks is just one aspect of the “Next Generation Protective Textiles” initiative. The focus is on approaches for the production of improved, high-quality protective textiles. A total of ten Fraunhofer research institutes are involved in the project. It is a large-scale project that emerged from an idea competition that the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft announced internally in March 2020.

No Swabs: Masks with Integrated Corona Testing

Corona testing is an important part of the measures to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2 by detecting infections as early as possible. However, the current testing methods have some drawbacks: they require uncomfortable swabs of the nose and throat and are prone to error if the swab is taken incorrectly or at the wrong time. With a PCR test, the result is often not available until the next day. In a joint project between the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology, Branch Bioanalytics and Bioprocesses IZI-BB, and the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP, a team led by Dr. Cornelia Hettrich is working on making corona tests possible without swabs. The approach: a respiratory mask with an integrated sensor continuously measures and analyzes the viral load in the exhaled breath of the wearers. The advantages: sampling is non-invasive, does not require clinical staff, and does not constitute a significant burden to the test subjects. Even if the subjects do not show any symptoms, the viral load in the breath is already sufficient to detect an infection with SARS-CoV-2 with an integrated sensor. The results of such corona tests would then be easier to determine and immediately available.

Antibody Production with Turboboost: High-Quality Antibodies for Improved Test Methods and Medications

Prof. Katja Hanack is a professor of immunotechnology at the University of Potsdam. Even before the outbreak of the first infections with the coronavirus, she had spent many years researching methods to produce artificial antibodies more quickly. Her team achieved a breakthrough: with the help of her research, the time needed for the production of artificial antibodies could be shortened from twelve to three months. In 2014, she founded the startup new/era/mabs to produce artificial antibodies and market the technology for faster antibody production. The process she modernized may now also help establish new testing methods and drugs. The Potsdam researcher is currently at Stanford University in the United States, where she is working with cooperation partners and other companies to promote the practical use of the antibodies she has developed. One of the projects, for example, involves a testing device for home use, with which very precise test results can be obtained in just 30 to 40 minutes. This would optimize conventional testing procedures – because while rapid tests provide rapid but rarely very accurate results, waiting for PCR tests can take one to two days due to laboratory evaluations. Also promising is the approach of using human antibodies produced in the research group for a drug against SARS-CoV-2. Because these antibodies would act directly on the virus, a faster effect could be achieved than with RNA-based drugs.

The Optimized Rapid Test: Highest Accuracy and the Detection of All Mutations Thanks to Antibodies from Brandenburg

Dr. Frank Sellrie and Jörg Schenk from the Immunotechnology Group of UP Transfer GmbH at the University of Potsdam are also working on improved testing methods using high-quality antibodies. The two scientists have been conducting research in the field of antibody technology for more than 20 years and already developed new monoclonal antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in a project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research last year. These antibodies have extremely high affinity and specificity, so they do not recognize other coronaviruses, as has been determined in joint studies with Charité and Fraunhofer IZI-BB. However, all the common virus variants (Alpha, Delta, etc.) are recognized. There is still a great need for SARS-CoV-2 binding antibodies to detect infections faster and more reliably. In recent months, the antibodies have been integrated into a sensitive rapid test manufactured by ImmoGnost, which has been on the market since June 2021. This test is one of the few to be developed and manufactured entirely in Germany. The “heart” of the test, the monoclonal antibodies, were generated at the Potsdam Science Park.

Conclusion

Despite the increasing vaccination rate, many scientists believe that the coronavirus will continue to concern us, especially since the so-called herd immunity has not yet been achieved. The various research projects at the Potsdam Science Park therefore offer important insights for the development of better corona tests and protective masks as well as highly effective drugs. It is only a matter of time before further mutations or even a new virus will pose new challenges to the world. With their research today, the scientists are laying the foundation for faster and more efficient reactions to possible pandemics in the future.

Further Information:

Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP
Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology, Branch Bioanalytics and Bioprocesses IZI-BB
Universität of Potsdam, Endowed Professorship of Immunotechnology
Immunotechnology Group, UP Transfer GmbH at the University of Potsdam (German)

Contact:
Karen Esser
PR & Communications
karen.esser@potsdam-sciencepark.de

Picture: 3D-Render of a Coronavirus, source: iStock (Standard License), RomoloTavani