Already vaccinated and want more protection from COVID-19? A protein found in ice cream could help, some research suggests, though there are a bunch of caveats.
The protein, called lactoferrin, is found in the milk of mammals and thus in dairy products, including ice cream. It has astounding antiviral properties that have been taken for granted and remain largely unexplored because it is a natural product, meaning that it cannot be patented and exploited by pharmaceutical companies.
Jonathan Sexton runs a drug screening program at the University of Michigan where cells are infected with a pathogen and then exposed to a library of the thousands of small molecule drug compounds – which can enter the body more easily than drugs with heavier molecules – approved by the FDA. In addition, the library includes compounds that passed phase 1 safety studies but later proved ineffective against the targeted disease. Each drug is dissolved in a solvent for exposure to the cells in the laborious testing process made feasible by robotic automation.
When COVID hit, researchers scrambled to identify any approved drug that might help fight the infection. Sexton decided to screen the drug library as well as some dietary supplements against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. Sexton says that the grunt work fell to Jesse Wotring, “a very talented PhD student,” who pulled lactoferrin off the shelf. But the regular solvent used in the testing process would destroy the protein, so he had to take another approach and do all the work by hand.
“We were agnostic,” says Sexton, who didn't have a strong interest in lactoferrin or any of the other compounds in the library, but the data was quite clear; lactoferrin “consistently produced the best efficacy...it was the absolute home run.” The findings were published in separate papers last year and in February.
It turns out that lactoferrin has several different mechanisms of action against SARS-CoV-2, inhibiting the virus from entering cells, moving around within them and replicating. Lactoferrin also modulates the overall immune response, which makes it difficult for the virus to simultaneously mutate resistance to the protein at every step of replication. “It has broad efficacy against every [SARS-CoV-2] variant that we've tested,” he says.
From bench to bedside
Sexton's initial interest was to develop a drug for the acute phase of COVID infection, to treat a hospitalized patient or prevent that hospitalization. But with the quick approval of vaccines and drugs to treat the disease, he increasingly focused on ways to better prevent infection and inhibit spread of the virus.
“If you can get lactoferrin to persist in your upper GI tract, then it may very well prevent the primary infection, and that's what we're really interested in.” He reasoned that a chewing gum formula might release enough lactoferrin into the mucosal tissue of the mouth and upper airways to inhibit replication and give the immune system a chance to knock out the virus before it can establish a foothold. It could also reduce the amount of virus spread through talking.
To get enough lactoferrin to have a possible beneficial effect, one would have to drink gallons of milk a day, “and that would have other undesirable consequences, like getting extremely obese,” says Sexton. Obesity is one of the leading risk factors for severe COVID disease.
Testing that theory has been difficult. The easiest way would be a “challenge trial,” where volunteers take the drug, or in this case gum, are exposed to the pathogen, and protection is measured. Some COVID challenge studies have been conducted in Europe but the FDA remains hesitant to allow such a study in the U.S. A traditional prevention study would be like a vaccine trial, involving thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of volunteers over a period of months or years, and it would be very expensive. No one has stepped forward to foot the bill.
So the next step for Sexton is a clinical trial of newly diagnosed COVID patients who will be given standard of care treatment, and layered on top of that they will receive either lactoferrin, probably in pill form, or a placebo. He has identified initial funding. “We would study their viral load over time as well as their symptoms.”
One issue the FDA is grappling with in considering the proposed trial is that it typically decides whether to approve drugs from a factory by applying a rigorous standard, called good manufacturing practices, while food products, which are the source of lactoferrin, are produced under somewhat different standards. The agency still has not finalized rules on how to deal with natural products used as drugs, such as fecal transplants, convalescent plasma, or medical marijuana.
Sexton is frustrated by the delay because lactoferrin derived from bovine milk whey has been used for many decades as a protein supplement by athletes, it is a large component of most infant formula, and the largest number of clinical studies of lactoferrin involve premature infants. There is no question of its safety, he says.
Do it yourself
So what can you do while waiting for regulatory wheels to spin and clinical trial data to be generated?
Could a dose of Ben & Jerry's provide some protection against SARS-CoV-2?
Sexton chuckles at the suggestion. He supposes it couldn't hurt. But to get enough lactoferrin to have a possible beneficial effect, one would have to drink gallons of milk a day, “and that would have other undesirable consequences, like getting extremely obese.” Obesity is one of the leading risk factors for severe COVID disease.
Pseudo-milk products made from soy, almonds, oats, or other plant products do not contain lactoferrin; it has to come from a teat. So that rules them out.
Whey-based protein shakes might be a useful way to add lactoferrin to the diet.
Probably the best option is to take conventional gelatin capsules of lactoferrin that are widely available wherever supplements are sold. Sexton calculates that about a gram a day, four 250 milligram capsules, should do it. He advises two in the morning and two a night. “You really want to take them on an empty stomach...your stomach treats [the lactoferrin protein] like it would a steak” and chops it for absorption in the intestine, which you do not want. About 70 percent of lactoferrin can get through an empty stomach, but eating food cranks up digestive gastric acids and the amount of intact lactoferrin that gets through to the gut plummets.
Sexton cautions, “We have not determined clinical efficacy yet,” and he is not offering advice as a physician, but in the spirit of harm reduction, he realizes that some people are going to try things that might help them. Lactoferrin “is remarkably safe. And so people have to make their own decisions about what they are willing to take and what they are not,” he says.
Brittany Trang was staring at her glass test tube, which suddenly turned opaque white. At first, she had thought that the chemical reaction she tested left behind some residue, but when she couldn’t clean it off, she realized that the reaction produced corrosive compounds that ate at the glass. That, however, was a good sign. It meant that the reaction, which she didn’t necessarily expect to work, was in fact, working. And Trang, who in 2020 was a Ph.D. researcher in chemistry at Northwestern University, had reasons to be skeptical. She was trying to break down the nearly indestructible molecules of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS—the forever chemicals called so because they resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water, and thus don’t react or break down in the environment.
“The first time I ran this, I was like, oh, like there's a bunch of stuff stuck to the glass, but when I tried to clean it, it wasn’t coming off,” Trang says, recalling her original experiment and her almost-disbelief at the fact she managed to crack the notoriously stubborn and problematic molecules. “I was mostly just surprised that it worked in general.”
In the recent past, the world has been growing increasingly concerned about PFAS, the pollutants that even at low levels are associated with a litany of adverse health effects, including liver damage, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pregnancy complications and several cancers. Used for decades in manufacturing and in various products such as fire retardant foam, water-repellant clothes, furniture fabrics, Teflon-coated pans, disposable plates, lunch containers and shoes, these super-stable compounds don’t degrade in the environment. The forever chemicals are now everywhere: in the water, in soil, in milk, and in produce.
As of June 2022, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog organization, found 2,858 locations in 50 states and two territories to be heavily contaminated with PFAS while many farmers had been forced to dump their milk or spinach because the levels of these compounds were in some cases up to 400 times greater than what’s considered safe. And because PFAS are so pervasive in the environment and the food we eat, they are in our bodies too. One study found some levels of PFAS in 97 to 100 percent of participants tested.
Because these compounds were made to be very stable, they are hard to destroy. So far, the only known way to break down PFAS has been to “cook” them under very harsh conditions. The process, known as pyrolysis, requires upwards of 500 degrees Centigrade, high pressure and absence of oxygen, which is energy expensive. It involves sophisticated equipment and the burning of fossil fuels. Trang, who worked in the laboratory of William Dichtel, managed to break PFAS at 120 degrees Centigrade (248 F) without using strong pressure. After she examined the results of her process with various techniques that help quantify the resulting compounds and confirmed that PFAS had indeed degraded into carbon and the corrosive fluorine that clouded her glass, she was thrilled that it worked in such simple conditions.
“That's really what differentiates our finding from everything else that's out there,” Dichtel said about their discovery at a press conference announcing the study last month. “When we're talking about low temperatures, we're at 120 degrees Celsius and sometimes even quite a bit lower than that, and especially ambient pressure.”
The process used by Trang’s team was the exact opposite of the typical organic synthesis method.
Trang’s journey into PFAS degradation began with a paper she read about the nuances of the chemicals’ molecular structure. A long molecule comprised primarily of carbon and fluorine atoms, along with oxygen and hydrogen, it has what Trang describes as a head and a tail. At the head sits a compound called carboxylic acid while the fluorine atoms make up the tail portion, with the atomic bonds so strong they aren’t possible to break without harsh treatment. But in early 2020, Trang read that a solvent called dimethylsulfoxide, or DMSO, commonly used in labs and industry, can make the carboxylic acid “pop off” its place. The DMSO doesn’t react with carboxylic acid but sort of displaces it, leaving the rest of the typically indestructible PFAS molecule vulnerable.
Trang found that its exposed fluorine tail would react with another common chemical compound, sodium hydroxide, causing a cascade of reactions that ultimately unravel the rest. “After you have decarboxylated the head, the hydroxide is able to react with the tail,” Trang says. “That's what sets off a cascade of reactions that degrades the rest of the molecule.”
That pathway took time to figure out. Trang was able to determine that the molecule carboxylic acid head popped off, but before she was able to figure out the rest, her lab and the entire Northwestern University went into lockdown in early March of 2020. “I was able to do three experiments before the shutdown,” she recalls. For the next few months, she sat at home, reading scientific literature to understand how to continue the degradation process. “I had read a bunch of literature and had a bunch of ideas for what may or may not work,” she says. By the time she could return to work, she had a plan. “I added sodium hydroxide in my batch of experiments when the lab reopened.”
The process used by Trang’s team was the exact opposite of the typical organic synthesis method. “Most organic chemists take two molecules and squish them together to make one big molecule. It’s like taking two Legos and putting them together to make one thing that was larger,” she says. “What we are doing is kind of smashing the Lego with two bits and looking at what was left to figure out how it fell apart.” The team published their discovery in the journal Science.
Although very promising, the process isn’t quite ready for industrial applications, and will take time to adapt, Trang says. For starters, it would have to be scaled up to continuously clean large quantities of water, sewage or other substances that can be contaminated with PFAS. The process will also have to be modified, particularly when it comes to removing PFAS from drinking water because as an industrial chemical, DMSO is not suitable for that. Water companies typically use activated carbon to filter out PFAS and other pollutants, so once that concentrated waste is accumulated, it would be removed and then treated with DMSO and hydroxide to break down the molecules. “That is what our method would likely be applied to,” Trang says—the concentrated waste rather than a reservoir because “you wouldn't want to mix DMSO with your drinking water.”
There are some additional limitations to the method. It only breaks down one class of forever chemicals, but there are others. For example, the molecules of perfluoroalkane sulfonic acids, or PFSA, don’t have a carboxylic head that DMSO can displace. Instead, PFSA have a sulphonic acid as their molecular head, which would require a different solvent that still needs to be discovered. “There is certainly the possibility of activating sulphonates in similar ways [to what] we've done [with] carboxylates,” Dichtel said, and he hopes this will happen in the future. Other forever chemical types may have their own Achilles’ heels, waiting to be discovered. “If we can knock that sulphonated headgroup off the molecule and get to the same intermediates we get to in this study,” Dichtel added, “it's very reasonable to assume that they'll degrade by very similar pathways.” Perhaps another team of inquisitive chemists will take on the challenge.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- A new mask can detect Covid and send an alert to your phone
- More promising research for a breakthrough drug to treat schizophrenia
- AI tool can create new proteins
- Connections between an unhealthy gut and breast cancer
- Progress on the longevity drug, rapamycin
And an honorable mention this week: Certain exercises may benefit some types of memory more than others