Snot Fights Covid-19
Twice a day, morning and night, I use a neti pot to send a warm saltwater solution coursing through one nostril and out the other to flush out debris and pathogens. I started many years ago because of sinus congestion and infections and it has greatly reduced those problems. Along with vaccination when it became available, it seems to have helped with protecting me from developing Covid-19 symptoms despite being of an age and weight that puts me squarely at risk.
Now that supposition of protection has been backed up with evidence from a solidly designed randomized clinical trial. It found that irrigating your sinuses twice a day with a simple saltwater solution can lead to an 8.5-fold reduction in hospitalization from Covid-19. The study is another example of recent research that points to easy and inexpensive ways to help protect yourself and help control the epidemic.
Amy Baxter, the physician researcher behind the study at Augusta University, Medical College of Georgia, began the study in 2020, before a vaccine or monoclonal antibodies became available to counter the virus. She wanted to be able to offer another line of defense for people with limited access to healthcare.
The nasal cavity is the front door that the SARS-CoV-2 virus typically uses to enter the body, latching on to the ACE2 receptors on cells lining those tissue compartments to establish infection. Once the virus replicates here, infection spreads into the lungs and often other parts of the body, including the brain and gut. Some studies have shown that a mouthwash could reduce the viral load, but any effect on disease progression was less clear. Baxter reasoned that reducing the amount of virus in the nose might give the immune system a better chance to react and control that growth before it got out of hand.
She decided to test this approach in patients who had just tested positive for Covid-19, were over 55 years of age, and often had other risk factors for developing serious symptoms. It was the quickest and easiest way to get results. A traditional prevention study would have required many more volunteers, taken a longer period of follow up, and cost money she did not have.
The trial enrolled 79 participants within 24 hours of testing positive for Covid-19, and they agreed to follow the regimen of twice daily nasal irrigation. They were followed for 28 days. One patient was hospitalized; a 1.27% rate compared with 11% in a national sample control group of similar age people who tested positive for Covid-19. Patients who strictly adhered to nasal irrigation had fewer, shorter and less severe symptoms than people in the study who missed some of their saline rinses.
Baxter initially made the results of her clinical trial available as a preprint in the summer of 2021 and was dismayed when many of the comments were from anti-vaxxers who argued this was a reason why you did not need to get vaccinated. That was not her intent.
There are several mechanisms that explain why warm saltwater is so effective. First and most obvious is the physical force of the water that sweeps away debris just as a rainstorm sends trash into a street gutter and down a storm drain. It also lubricates the cilia, small hair-like structures whose job it is to move detritus away from cells for expulsion. Cilia are rich in ACE2 receptors and keeping them moving makes it harder for the virus to latch on to the receptors.
It turns out the saline has a direct effect on the virus itself. SARS-CoV-2 becomes activated when an enzyme called furin snips off part of its molecular structure, which allows the virus to grab on to the ACE2 receptor, but saline inhibits this process. Once inside a cell the virus replicates best in a low salt environment, but nasal cells absorb salt from the irrigation, which further slows viral replication, says Baxter.
Finally, “salt improves the jellification of liquid, it makes better and stickier mucus so that you can get those virus out,” she explains, lamenting, “Nobody cares about snot. I do now.”
She initially made the results of her clinical trial available as a preprint in the summer of 2021 and was dismayed when many of the comments were from anti-vaxxers who argued this was a reason why you did not need to get vaccinated. That was not her intent. Two journals rejected the paper, and Baxter believes getting caught up in the polarizing politics of Covid-19 was an important part of the reason why. She says that editors “didn't want to be associated with something that was being used by anti-vaxxers.” She strongly supports vaccination but realizes that additional and alternative approaches also are needed.
Premeasured packets of saline are inexpensive and can be purchased at any drug store. They are safe to use several times a day. Say you’re vaccinated but were in a situation where you fear you might have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2; an extra irrigation will clear out your sinuses and may reduce the risk of that possible exposure.
Baxter plans no further study in this area. She is returning to her primary research focus, which is pain control and reducing opioid use, but she hopes that others will expand on what she had done.
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.