Blocking the Infection Cycle: Technion Scientists Develop Effective, Long-lasting Disinfectants

May 20, 2020

Unlike household bleach and similar products used for disinfecting surfaces, the new substances target the virus infection mechanism and remain active for longer

Scientists from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology’s Wolfson Faculty of Chemical Engineering have developed smart disinfectants that destroy the coronavirus infection mechanism and remain active over time. These products are expected to replace household bleach and other chorine-based products whose disinfecting powers diminish rapidly.

Assistant Professor Shady Farah, head of the research group, has been awarded a European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Health COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant in order to accelerate the disinfectants’ development process and market launch. This is the first time that a Technion scientist has received a prestigious EIT Health grant alone. “We are currently producing potential substances and testing them, and plan to select the optimal substance and begin mass production in the next few months,” said Prof. Farah.

The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus belongs to an extensive family of viruses that the world has been aware of for many years. Some of these viruses can infect humans. The novel coronavirus closely resembles one of its predecessors, SARS-CoV, which also originated in China and spread to many other countries. However, the steps that were taken to fight SARS-CoV are not effective enough against the current epidemic. To date, there is no approved “knockout” treatment for SARS-CoV-2 and there is no vaccine against it.

Given the situation, efficient disinfectants are crucial for blocking the spread of infection via contaminated surfaces. The novel coronavirus can survive on various surfaces for extended periods of time, depending on the type of surface and other conditions. Findings from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where there were numerous cases of coronavirus, revealed that the virus can survive on surfaces for as long as 17 days. This fact increases the probability of infection from touching contaminated surfaces, in addition to person-to-person infection.

Prof. Farah’s research group develops innovative polymers for medical use and smart drug delivery technologies. When the COVID-19 epidemic broke out, the research group immediately devoted itself to developing special antiviral polymers that act on the virus in two ways: by altering and damaging its structure so that its infection capability is impaired; and by attacking and destroying the virus’s envelope. No less important, the disinfecting substance is released in a controlled and continuous manner so that the new technology’s effect is long-lasting.

Disinfectants have been used since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in order to prevent infection from contaminated surfaces – mainly by applying hypochlorite solutions, more commonly known as household bleach. This method has significant disadvantages: it evaporates quickly, and breaks down rapidly when exposed to sun/UV light. Consequently, its effectiveness is limited and short-term, requiring surfaces to be disinfected several times a day.

The new disinfectant technology developed by Prof. Farah’s research group is based on low-cost and readily available raw materials. The development was made possible thanks to interdisciplinary knowledge which combines the fields of combinatorial chemistry, polymer engineering, and controlled release.

“The materials we developed will be a game changer because they will block the cycle of infection from contaminated surfaces,” said Prof. Farah. “Infection from touching surfaces is a serious problem, especially in public places such as hospitals, factories, schools, shopping malls, and public transportation. Our polymers will make these places safer. Although this development was accelerated due to the current coronavirus crisis, in the future it will also be effective against other microorganisms. We are enriching the arsenal of tools available to us and adding a new family of disinfectants that release the active substance in a controlled manner. In this way, they remain effective for long periods of time.”

Professor Shady Farah completed three academic degrees at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, including a direct-track PhD in Medicinal Chemistry. He then pursued postdoctoral research at MIT (with Professor Robert Langer and Professor Daniel G. Anderson) and at the Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School. He is currently Assistant Professor in the Technion’s Wolfson Faculty of Chemical Engineering, where he holds a Neubauer Chair, and is a fellow of the Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute (RBNI). He received a Maof Fellowship for Outstanding Young Researchers and his lab received generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

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