Can chewing gum stop the spread of COVID-19?

The gum 'offers an opportunity to neutralize the virus in the saliva, giving us a simple way to possibly cut down on a source of disease transmission,' says researcher.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read December 6, 2021
Close-up of a woman's face with a pink bubble gum. Vintage comic style.

Researchers may have found a new way to contain the spread of the coronavirus: chewing gum. GETTY

Containing COVID could soon be as simple as chewing gum thanks to a researcher who has found a way to lace the soft candy with a plant-grown protein capable of trapping and nullifying the virus.

The research, conducted at Pennsylvania’s School of Dental Medicine and published in the journal Molecular Therapy, represents a low-cost way to limit the spread of a virus that has been slowed — but not stopped — by vaccination. Previous studies have shown that people who are double dosed can still carry a viral load similar to the unvaccinated, making new tools a necessity in efforts to finally put the pandemic in the past.

“SARS-CoV-2 replicates in the salivary glands and we know that when someone who is infected sneezes, coughs or speaks, some of that virus can be expelled and reach others,” said Henry Daniell, lead researcher and vice chair in the department of basic and translational sciences at the school. “This gum offers an opportunity to neutralize the virus in the saliva, giving us a simple way to possibly cut down on a source of disease transmission.”

Prior to the pandemic, Daniell had been exploring the potential of a protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) to treat hypertension. He developed a production system that involved bombarding plant-based material with the DNA of ACE2 — and other potentially therapeutic proteins — until the chloroplasts within the plants began to grow the proteins themselves. Once this plant material was freeze-dried and ground up, the researcher had himself a delivery system that bypassed the expensive production and purification process that usually accompanies protein drug synthesis.

Fortuitously, ACE2 binds to the same receptor on human cells as the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. With research revealing ACE2 injections have been found to lower COVID viral loads, Daniell paired with a colleague who had been collecting swabs of the virus since the early days of the pandemic to explore whether chewing gum infused with the plant-grown protein could neutralize the virus inside the mouth.

“Henry contacted me and asked if we had samples to test his approach, what kind of samples would be appropriate to test, and whether we could internally validate the level of SARS-CoV-2 virus in the saliva samples,” said Ronald Collman, a professor of medicine and microbiology and director of the Penn Center for AIDS Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “That led to a cross-school collaboration building on our microbiome studies.”

To test their theory, the team grew ACE2 in plants — adding another compound that helps the protein cross mucosal barriers and bind more easily — and infused the resulting plant material into cinnamon-flavoured gum. They found that incubating patient samples of SARS-CoV-2 with the gum was effective at neutralizing the virus.

Follow-up testing that pitted the gum against viruses less pathogenic than SARS-CoV-2 — but modified to express the same spike protein — were overwhelmingly effective, with the gum largely preventing viral particles from entering cells. A final test that exposed the saliva of COVID-positive patients to the ACE2 gum reduced the presence of viral RNA to almost undetectable levels.

“Henry’s approach of making the proteins in plants and using them orally is inexpensive, hopefully scalable; it really is clever,” Collman said.

While still in its early stages, if clinical trials prove safe the gum could have a wide range of applications, from a safeguard for people with an unknown infection status to a treatment administered prior to dental checkups when other precautions are impractical.

“We are already using masks and other physical barriers to reduce the chance of transmission,” Daniell said. “This gum could be used as an additional tool in that fight.”

Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca

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