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Limit the amount of coronavirus virus particles by wearing a mask? Not enough, according to researchers from the University of Kentucky. They have developed a new type of mask that can not only filter, but also “deactivate” the coronavirus by acting on a specific protein.
Their membrane breathing mask is indeed capable of neutralizing the Spike protein. A key function, since it is this protein that allows SARS-CoV-2 to enter human cells once inside the body. This is a kind of entry “key” and also facilitates the attachment of the viral surface to the cell surface. Therefore, scientists decided to attack this particular spike protein. Their research has been published in Communications Materials.
The N95 mask currently used by medical personnel, as its name suggests, must filter out 95% of viral particles. Therefore, it is this criterion that the researchers wanted to surpass. “N95 masks are the most commonly used masks in healthcare, but they do not provide consistent prevention of virus transmission. Due to the open structure of the fibrous layers, these masks are limited in capturing smaller particles (<300 nm) and the ability to retain electrically charged properties,” the scientists comment in their study.
To do this, they clearly did not neglect the filtering aspect. Protein neutralization is more of an additional defense: “This new material can filter the virus, as an N95 mask does, but also includes antiviral enzymes that completely inactivate it,” chemical engineer Dibakar Bhattacharya of the University of Kentucky said in a statement. . “This innovation is another layer of protection against SARS-CoV-2 that can help prevent the spread of the virus.”
To describe the components used in the various layers of the mask, scientists mention polymethacrylic acid and polyvinylidene fluoride, which are two different polymers. They explain that these materials have been “functionalized” with subtilisin. What is called “functionalization” in chemistry is the addition of a chemical function to a substrate.
In other words, by integrating subtilisin, which is an enzyme, they added a chemical function to their membrane: the function of “deactivating” the Spike protein during filtration. Subtilizin, as explained in its analysis by the Research Institute of Occupational Health and Safety. Robert-Sauvet, “is a proteolytic enzyme present in a variety of industrial applications; it acts in particular as a degreaser in biofountains and as a pre-sterilization agent in hospitals.” The Institute also reports lung allergy risks due to exposure to cleaning products containing this enzyme.
a) Scheme of the method of identification by protein denaturation. PMAA: polymethacrylic acid. © University of Kentucky
To conduct tests on their membrane, they used SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins immobilized on synthetic particles. The membrane was able to block the passage of coronavirus-sized aerosols by destroying Spike proteins within 30 seconds of contact. In this way, almost 99% of the target particles in the air were filtered out.
In addition to this increased performance compared to N95 masks, the researchers note that their membrane thickness and porosity are adjustable and therefore can be further improved. According to them, the mask could be worn for two hours a day for several days in a row without losing its effectiveness, while guaranteeing good breathability. “Innovative development of smart filter media with low airflow resistance that can filter, trap and deactivate aerosolized viral particles could bring enormous benefits to human health and workflow,” they say.