Nasal Spray Blocks Covid-19 and Other Viruses

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have created a new COVID-19 therapeutic that could one day make treating SARS-CoV-2 infections as easy as using a nasal spray for allergies. The therapeutic uses short snippets of synthetic DNA to gum up the genetic machinery that allows SARS-CoV-2 to replicate within the body.

In a new study published online in the journal Nature Communications, the team shows that these short snippets, called antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs), are highly effective at preventing the virus from replicating in human cells. When administered in the nose, these ASOs are also effective at preventing and treating COVID-19 infection in mice and hamsters.

Vaccines are making a huge difference, but vaccines are not universal, and there is still a tremendous need for other approaches,” said Anders Näär, a professor of metabolic biology in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology (NST) at UC Berkeley and senior author of the paper. “A nasal spray that is cheaply available everywhere and that could prevent someone from getting infected or prevent serious disease could be immensely helpful.”

Because the ASO treatment targets a portion of the viral genome that is highly conserved among different variants, it is effective against all SARS-CoV-2variants of concern” in human cells and in animal models. It is also chemically stable and relatively inexpensive to produce at large scale, making it ideal for treating COVID-19 infections in areas of the world that do not have access to electricity or refrigeration.

If the treatment proves to be safe and effective in humans, the ASO technology could be readily modified to target other RNA viruses. The research team is already searching for a way to use this to disrupt influenza viruses, which also have pandemic potential.

If we can design ASOs that target entire viral families, then when a new pandemic emerges, as long as we know which family the virus belongs to, we could use the nasally delivered ASOs to suppress the pandemic in its early stages,” said study first author Chi Zhu, a postdoctoral scholar in NST at UC Berkeley. “That’s the beauty of this new therapeutic.”


How to Produce Drinkable Water from Sea Water

University of California, Berkeley, chemists have discovered a way to simplify the removal of toxic metals, like mercury and boron, during desalination to produce clean water, while at the same time potentially capturing valuable metals, such as gold.

Desalination — the removal of salt — is only one step in the process of producing drinkable water, or water for agriculture or industry, from ocean or waste water. Either before or after the removal of salt, the water often has to be treated to remove boron, which is toxic to plants, and heavy metals like arsenic and mercury, which are toxic to humans. Often, the process leaves behind a toxic brine that can be difficult to dispose of.

The new technique, which can easily be added to current membrane-based electrodialysis desalination processes, removes nearly 100% of these toxic metals, producing a pure brine along with pure water and isolating the valuable metals for later use or disposal.

A flexible polymer membrane incorporating nanoparticles of PAF selectively absorbs nearly 100% of metals such mercury, copper or iron during desalination, more efficiently producing clean, safe water

Desalination or water treatment plants typically require a long series of high-cost, pre- and post-treatment systems that all the water has to go through, one by one,” said Adam Uliana, a UC Berkeley graduate student who is first author of a paper describing the technology. “But here, we have the ability to do several of these steps all in one, which is a more efficient process. Basically, you could implement it in existing setups.”

The UC Berkeley chemists synthesized flexible polymer membranes, like those currently used in membrane separation processes, but embedded nanoparticles that can be tuned to absorb specific metal ionsgold or uranium ions, for example. The membrane can incorporate a single type of tuned nanoparticle, if the metal is to be recovered, or several different types, each tuned to absorb a different metal or ionic compound, if multiple contaminants need to be removed in one step.

The polymer membrane laced with nanoparticles is very stable in water and at high heat, which is not true of many other types of absorbers, including most metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), when embedded in membranes.


On Mars or Earth, biohybrid can turn CO2 into new products

If humans ever hope to colonize Mars, the settlers will need to manufacture on-planet a huge range of organic compounds, from fuels to drugs, that are too expensive to ship from Earth. University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) chemists have a plan for that.

For the past eight years, the researchers have been working on a hybrid system combining bacteria and nanowires that can capture the energy of sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into building blocks for organic molecules. Nanowires are thin silicon wires about one-hundredth the width of a human hair, used as electronic components, and also as sensors and solar cells.

A device to capture carbon dioxide from the air and convert it to useful organic products. On left is the chamber containing the nanowire/bacteria hybrid that reduces CO2 to form acetate. On the right is the chamber where oxygen is produced

On Mars, about 96% of the atmosphere is CO2. Basically, all you need is these silicon semiconductor nanowires to take in the solar energy and pass it on to these bugs to do the chemistry for you,” said project leader Peidong Yang, professor of chemistry and Energy at UC Berkeley. “For a deep space mission, you care about the payload weight, and biological systems have the advantage that they self-reproduce: You don’t need to send a lot. That’s why our biohybrid version is highly attractive.”

The only other requirement, besides sunlight, is water, which on Mars is relatively abundant in the polar ice caps and likely lies frozen underground over most of the planet, said Yang, who is a senior faculty scientist at Berkeley Lab and director of the Kavli Energy Nanoscience Institute.

The biohybrid can also pull carbon dioxide from the air on Earth to make organic compounds and simultaneously address climate change, which is caused by an excess of human-produced CO2 in the atmosphere.

In a new paper published in the journal Joule, the researchers report a milestone in packing these bacteria (Sporomusa ovata) into a “forest of nanowires” to achieve a record efficiency: 3.6% of the incoming solar energy is converted and stored in carbon bonds, in the form of a two-carbon molecule called acetate: essentially acetic acid, or vinegar.


Molecular ‘Switch’ Reverses Chronic Inflammation And Aging

Chronic inflammation, which results when old age, stress or environmental toxins keep the body’s immune system in overdrive, can contribute to a variety of devastating diseases, from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to diabetes and cancer.

Now, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have identified a molecularswitch” that controls the immune machinery responsible for chronic inflammation in the body. The finding, which appears online  in the journal Cell Metabolism, could lead to new ways to halt or even reverse many of these age-related conditions.

My lab is very interested in understanding the reversibility of aging,” said senior author Danica Chen, associate professor of metabolic biology, nutritional sciences and toxicology at UC Berkeley. “In the past, we showed that aged stem cells can be rejuvenated. Now, we are asking: to what extent can aging be reversed? And we are doing that by looking at physiological conditions, like inflammation and insulin resistance, that have been associated with aging-related degeneration and diseases.”

In the study, Chen and her team show that a bulky collection of immune proteins called the NLRP3 inflammasome — responsible for sensing potential threats to the body and launching an inflammation response — can be essentially switched off by removing a small bit of molecular matter in a process called deacetylation.

Overactivation of the NLRP3 inflammasome has been linked to a variety of chronic conditions, including multiple sclerosis, cancer, diabetes and dementia. Chen’s results suggest that drugs targeted toward deacetylating, or switching off, this NLRP3 inflammasome might help prevent or treat these conditions and possibly age-related degeneration in general.

This acetylation can serve as a switch,” Chen said. “So, when it is acetylated, this inflammasome is on. When it is deacetylated, the inflammasome is off.”


Internet Of Thoughts

Imagine a future technology that would provide instant access to the world’s knowledge and artificial intelligence, simply by thinking about a specific topic or question. Communications, education, work, and the world as we know it would be transformed. Writing in Frontiers in Neuroscience, an international collaboration led by researchers at UC Berkeley and the US Institute for Molecular Manufacturing predicts that exponential progress in nanotechnology, nanomedicine, AI, and computation will lead this century to the development of a “Human Brain/Cloud Interface” (B/CI), that connects neurons and synapses in the brain to vast cloud-computing networks in real time.

The B/CI concept was initially proposed by futurist-author-inventor Ray Kurzweil, who suggested that neural nanorobots – brainchild of Robert Freitas, Jr., senior author of the research – could be used to connect the neocortex of the human brain to a “synthetic neocortex” in  . Our wrinkled neocortex is the newest, smartest, ‘conscious’ part of the brain. Freitas’ proposed neural nanorobots would provide direct, real-time monitoring and control of signals to and from brain cells.

These devices would navigate the human vasculature, cross the blood-brain barrier, and precisely autoposition themselves among, or even within brain cells,” explains Freitas. “They would then wirelessly transmit encoded information to and from a cloud-based supercomputer network for real-time brain-state monitoring and data extraction.

This cortex in the cloud would allow “Matrix“-style downloading of information to the brain, the group claims. “A human B/CI system mediated by neuralnanorobotics could empower individuals with instantaneous access to all cumulative human knowledge available in the cloud, while significantly improving human learning capacities and intelligence,” says lead author Dr. Nuno Martins.

B/CI technology might also allow us to create a future “global superbrain” that would connect networks of individual human brains and AIs to enable collective thought. “While not yet particularly sophisticated, an experimental human ‘BrainNet’ system has already been tested, enabling thought-driven information exchange via the cloud between individual brains,” explains Martins. “It used electrical signals recorded through the skull of ‘senders’ and magnetic stimulation through the skull of ‘receivers,’ allowing for performing cooperative tasks. With the advance of neuralnanorobotics, we envisage the future creation of ‘superbrains’ that can harness the thoughts and thinking power of any number of humans and machines in real time. This shared cognition could revolutionize democracy, enhance empathy, and ultimately unite culturally diverse groups into a truly global society.”

According to the group’s estimates, even existing supercomputers have processing speeds capable of handling the necessary volumes of neural data for B/CI – and they’re getting faster, fast. Rather, transferring neural data to and from supercomputers in the cloud is likely to be the ultimate bottleneck in B/CI development. “This challenge includes not only finding the bandwidth for global data transmission,” cautions Martins, “but also, how to enable data exchange with neurons via tiny devices embedded deep in the brain.”

One solution proposed by the authors is the use of ‘magnetoelectric nanoparticles‘ to effectively amplify communication between neurons and the cloud. “These nanoparticles have been used already in living mice to couple external magnetic fields to neuronal electric fields – that is, to detect and locally amplify these magnetic signals and so allow them to alter the electrical activity of neurons,” explains Martins. “This could work in reverse, too: electrical signals produced by neurons and nanorobots could be amplified via magnetoelectric nanoparticles, to allow their detection outside of the skull.” Getting these nanoparticles – and nanorobots – safely into the brain via the circulation, would be perhaps the greatest challenge of all in B/CI.

A detailed analysis of the biodistribution and biocompatibility of nanoparticles is required before they can be considered for human development. Nevertheless, with these and other promising technologies for B/CI developing at an ever-increasing rate, an ‘internet of thoughts’ could become a reality before the turn of the century,” Martins concludes.


How To Detect Genetic Mutations In Minutes

A team of engineers at the UC Berkeley and the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) of The Claremont Colleges combined CRISPR with electronic transistors made from graphene to create a new hand-held device that can detect specific genetic mutations in a matter of minutes.

The device, dubbed CRISPR-Chip, could be used to rapidly diagnose genetic diseases or to evaluate the accuracy of gene-editing techniques. The team used the device to identify genetic mutations in DNA samples from Duchenne muscular dystrophy patients.


We have developed the first transistor that uses CRISPR to search your genome for potential mutations,” said Kiana Aran, an assistant professor at KGI who conceived of the technology while a postdoctoral scholar in UC Berkeley bioengineering professor Irina Conboy’s lab. “You just put your purified DNA sample on the chip, allow CRISPR to do the search and the graphene transistor reports the result of this search in minutes.”

Aran, who developed this technology and brought it to fruition at KGI, is the senior author of a paper describing the device that appears online March 25 in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Doctors and geneticists can now sequence DNA to pinpoint genetic mutations underlying a host of traits and conditions, and companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA even make these tests available to curious consumers.