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Researchers at Texas A&M using caffeine to help fight off viruses like COVID-19

Published: Dec. 22, 2020 at 11:10 PM CST
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - Researchers at Texas A&M say caffeine could help play a role in fighting off some viruses like COVID-19.

Dr. Yubin Zhou, Dr. Yun Nancy Huang, and their team of researchers at the Texas A&M Institute of Biosciences and Technology are using caffeine as a way to boost the efficacy of biological processes with the help of a molecule they developed called COSMO, which stands for caffeine-operated synthetic module.

“It is basically a genetically encoded antibody pneumatic that can recognize caffeine or its metabolites such as theobromine, which gives coffee and chocolate its bitter tastes,” Zhou said.

Caffeine acts as the trigger for COSMO to control biological processes, pushing the molecule to spring into action. COSMO gets its instructions about which process to carry out when it is fused with another specific protein.

That trigger, obviously, is abundantly available in certain food and drinks people commonly consume. Zhou and Huang say one of the reasons caffeine is uniquely equipped to act as this trigger is because it can function as a glue to bring two proteins together.

“We’re trying to use it to see whether we can drink one cup of coffee, one can of Coca-Cola, or one chocolate bar, and then we can make enough antibodies respond to those doses,” Huang said.

Huang says the amount of caffeine it would take to trigger a robust response is a very important part of their research and where it’s headed.

“Affinity matters,” Huang said. “If the affinity is low, we have to use a high dose of caffeine for this antibody. But if there’s a high affinity, then we can use a very low amount of the caffeine to cause a response in those antibodies.”

Zhou and Huang have tested this phenomenon on a pseudovirus with a similar spiked protein structure to COVID-19, and they say COSMO-fused antibodies were successful in attacking it. Zhou says it shows that caffeinated antiviral antibodies can fight against infectious diseases like the novel coronavirus.

“This, I think, is a very critical step to prove the concept of how to use caffeine to enhance that antibody efficiency in fighting the virus,” Huang said.

“Drinking coffee or tea, you can actually double the efficacy, even triple it,” Zhou said. “Either way, it makes the response very efficient toward the invading virus.”

Even as COVID-19 vaccines begin to be made available to the general public, Zhou says this breakthrough is important because this is a means for treating patients after becoming infected by the virus.

“Vaccination is geared toward prevention of disease,” Zhou said. “This COSMO-weaponized antibody is more tailored for direct disease intervention. We still need some therapeutics to neutralize the virus more effectively, and that has to be done using the antibody-based approach.”

Fighting COVID-19 is just one of COSMO’s potential applications. COSMO-weaponized proteins can be instructed to kill tumors and cancer cells, dictate gene expressions, and make cells move around in different ways.

“COSMO actually functions like a Trojan Horse,” Zhou said. “It depends what you load into the horse and when you introduce it into cells.”

Zhou and Huang say that versatility of COSMO is just one reason why it has the potential to be extremely useful long after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

“I think the most exciting application in the long run will be to combine this with immunotherapy,” Zhou said. “Particularly, we can make these living drugs responsive to caffeine, so the patient can actually have a personalized dose of therapeutics. They can drink one or two cups of coffee and turn on a different amount of anti-tumor immune response. They could personalize the dose and timing of these therapeutics by lifestyle.”

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