HOW THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC UNCOVERED A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF OUR RESPIRATORY SYSTEM

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By Dr. Nazlie Latefi 

Although hospitals and medical facilities across the country have begun to distribute the FDA-approved Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, this will not stop this pandemic in the near future – particularly as holiday travel has caused an uptick in cases and a new, more contagious, COVID-19 strain that has been found in select states across the US.

Those who are exposed will reach for the best remedies they can find to treat the symptoms of the virus. However, as the vaccine rollout is expected to take months, Americans will want to stock up on products to help manage their symptoms should they get sick with COVID-19 or any upper respiratory illness in the meantime.

Although we knew little about this coronavirus at the beginning of 2020, medical communities everywhere have been actively studying everything there is to know about COVID-19, giving the public more confidence every day that we can beat this. Nearly a year later, scientists everywhere are finding that to stop this pandemic (and to prevent the next one), there needs to be more of a focus on understanding the respiratory system. Vaccines make our bodies create antibodies, but an often overlooked part of our immune system rests in our respiratory system, and now, to better understand the respiratory system, researchers are using technologies such as nasal tissues made from stem cells to gather more in-depth data.

How Our Body Protects Us, But Outdated Research Fails Us

You may recognize Delsym®, Robitussin®, Chloraseptic®, Theraflu®, and Mucinex® as over-the-counter (OTC) medications to treat common cold symptoms. Though they are widely recognized among consumers and have been popular choices for individuals suffering from COVID-19 symptoms, these OTC products received their approval decades ago with knowledge that we would look at today as outdated. 

Our bodies protect us from harm (like viruses) with mucosal membranes that line the nose and throat. These membranes are designed to keep viruses, such as the coronavirus, out of our lungs. Likewise, COVID-19 tests can use these membranes to detect the virus in asymptomatic patients – they find the virus in the nose before it reaches the lungs. That is why strong mucosal immunity is key, and why we must search for treatments that will strengthen this barrier, not just mask symptoms, as many of the older OTC products are designed to. 

Scientists are using new research and technology to help create a clearer picture of how nose and throat membranes respond to infection. Our team at Applied Biological Laboratories (along with other leading laboratories) is pioneering new research to reproduce human nasal and throat tissues in a lab to help us examine how respiratory diseases progress. Additionally, we were able to examine how the leading OTC medications affect the tissues when they are exposed to a virus.

Breakthroughs and Hope

Through our research at Applied Biological Laboratories, we studied human respiratory tissues that were stimulated with a molecule called bradykinin, which is one of the body’s first inflammatory signals following an upper respiratory infection. When leading OTC products were tested, they worsened inflammation rather than alleviating it. There’s no reason why OTC products shouldn’t be designed to address this inflammation rather than simply masking symptoms and Applied Bio has recently introduced the first product to do this under the brand name Biovanta™.

Additionally, there is new research and cutting edge technology being developed that will advance our understanding of the respiratory system. Dr. Michael Russell, a microbiology and immunology expert at the State University of New York at Buffalo, published a paper in Frontiers in Immunology in November 2020 which argued that the mucosal immune system is by far the largest component of the immune system and should receive far more attention than it does.

Other researchers, such as Jessica R. Kramer, a biomedical engineer and assistant professor at the University of Utah, are examining the impact mucus plays in transferring coronaviruses from person to person. Jessica and her team are developing different forms of synthetic mucins to better understand how they work together to spread COVID-19, including what happens when mucus droplets containing the virus land on surfaces.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the medical community to shift their focus, it has also shed light on our understanding of the upper respiratory system. Perhaps it is a silver lining in a year some might rather forget.

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