As researchers worldwide scramble to formulate a vaccine to combat COVID-19, a team at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is pursuing a potentially powerful solution to pandemic control: a viral trap that is easily adapted to different classes of viruses, enabling a “plug-and-play” approach to virus detection and antiviral activity. 

Jonathan Dordick, an endowed professor of chemical and biological engineering at Rensselaer, and Robert Linhardt, an endowed professor of chemistry and chemical biology, said the team is exploring how their work — in the areas of viral detection, therapy, and inhibition — could be used against COVID-19 and other viruses in the future. Their team views such innovative approaches as a vital hedge against the growing threat of global pandemics. 

The viral trap works by mimicking the latch points on a human cell that a virus must bind to before infecting a person by disgorging its genetic instructions into the cell. In research on the Dengue virus with Xing Wang, now a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois, recently published in Nature Chemistry, the team folded a snippet of DNA into a five-pointed star, and attached decoy latch points that align perfectly with the virus’ own molecular grappling hooks. The result was the world’s most sensitive test for Dengue, and a novel means of capturing and ultimately killing the virus. 

In previous research, the team demonstrated the same approach for Influenza A, and it can likely be expanded to other viruses like COVID-19. 

In another approach, Dordick demonstrated how enzymes incorporated into paint, can form a catalytic coating capable of killing the Influenza A Virus. The research, published in Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, suggests enzyme systems could further be incorporated into swabs, wipes, or coatings, to target and kill various viruses, including COVID-19.