Most hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol are effective against the coronavirus. But they don’t provide long-lasting protection and can disrupt the body’s microbiomes, killing off the good bacteria with the bad.

Second-year students at the Technion developed a gel that works for hours and selectively attracts just the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The ingenious research won the Technion student team a gold medal at the prestigious synthetic biology competition, iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine).

“We knew that when it came to the COVID-19 crisis we could not just wait in hope of positive developments,” said Tomer Antman ’23, one of the team leaders. “We decided to ACT,” he added, punning on what they call Anti COVID-19 Technology.

People can become severely infected when the spiked protein on the surface of the coronavirus binds to a particular host protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE2 receptor. The students created an innovative gel containing synthetic particles that mimic ACE2 receptors. These decoy proteins trick and capture the virus, trapping it on the surface of the skin. Once we wash our hands, the virus is removed, preventing its spread.

“We compare the virus to a fish and the system to fishing,” Antman said. Their engineered ACE2 protein is the bait, “which entices particles to attach . . . and the fishing rod is the gel” that reels the virus in.

The iGEM Competition was initiated by MIT in 2004 to provide students an opportunity to experiment in synthetic biology. Technion teams have been participating and winning since 2012, under Professor Roee Amit, head of the Synthetic Biology Laboratory for the Decipherment of Genomic Codes. “The achievements of the Technion’s iGEM teams are significant,” said Prof. Amit. “They do not merely amount to medals, since we have accumulated research and meaningful intellectual property that are expressed in scientific articles and in a patent published by two of our teams.”

This year’s team members were: Mr. Antman, Hadas Yung, Amir Betker, Dor Josef, Ella Samuel, Ilana Elizarov, Niv Skarbianskis, Noa Weiss, Shanny Ackerman, Shany Greenstein, Shay Bamany, Yara Zeibaq, Saar Shaviv, and Zixuan Li.