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Utah researchers examining mucus to pave way for coronavirus treatment

The University of Utah campus is pictured in Salt Lake City.
Jordan Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah biomedical researchers received a $200,000 federal grant to study mucus’ role in spreading coronaviruses to potentially open the door to a treatment for COVID-19.

In the spread of viruses, there’s an 80-20 rule — roughly 20% of infected people are responsible for about 80% of new transmissions, explained Jessica Kramer, U. assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

“And we don’t really know why. It’s an open question. They could produce higher amounts of virus just in their cells. But another possibility is if the virus interacts strongly with the mucus, every time they cough, they’re coughing a huge amount of virus, more than somebody else,” Kramer said.

Mucus is involved in spreading illnesses in two ways. When people cough or sneeze, they shoot mucus that contains the virus into the air. Mucus is also involved in the way the virus enters the next victim’s body, as they either inhale it from the air or touch a surface that has the virus, and then touch their nose, mouth or eyes.

And everyone’s mucus is different — it contains hundreds of different types of proteins and is affected by underlying conditions like cancer or cystic fibrosis, lifestyle factors like smoking, and genetic factors, Kramer said.

Super spreaders aren’t unique to coronavirus. They spread any airborne disease at a higher rate, according to the professor. And the phenomenon isn’t caused by bad hygiene, she said.

One hypothesis is that their mucus keeps the virus more viable as it travels through the air or as it lands on a surface and dries up.

Meanwhile, some people have mucus that acts as protection against viruses.

The U. researchers will create synthetic mucus through chemistry and test each individual structure inside the mucus to understand its biology, Kramer said. Amino acids and sugars will go into making the mucus, and then the researchers will chemically modify it through a series of reactions, she said.

The researchers will also examine some real mucus from University of Utah Hospital.

The goal of the study is to determine whose mucus is more likely to spread the virus and who is most at risk of getting the virus to provide guidance for who should quarantine in future outbreaks.

Further, not everyone with COVID-19 develops symptoms, and it’s possible some without symptoms are super spreaders. The study could help identify those at risk of spreading the disease without knowing it so they could know to quarantine.

“We want to find solutions to COVID-19, but also to future coronaviruses. ... These types of coronavirus infections keep coming up,” Kramer said, pointing to the 2003 SARS outbreak and 2012 MERS outbreak, both caused by viruses in the coronavirus family.

“These types of coronavirus infections keep coming up. This is not an isolated event. And so we would like to treat COVID-19, but also future outbreaks. And we hope to identify who are super spreaders to more quickly remove those people from the general population and quarantine them, and also to develop general drugs that block coronaviruses from binding to the mucus,” Kramer said.

The project is expected to be completed within a year, she said.