Prof. Paul Spagnuolo

A simple virus-fighting pill taken before boarding an airplane or entering a hospital or grocery store to ward off infection from the virus that causes COVID-19 could result from a University of Guelph project that has received more than $200,000 in federal funding.

Food science professor Paul Spagnuolo will receive a one-year, $211,250 award to study nutraceuticals that may prevent infection. Nutraceuticals are bioactive molecules from food that help promote health or help fight diseases.

His first-ever project to systematically screen bioactive molecules to fight the coronavirus is among nearly 140 initiatives awarded a total of $109 million from the COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

So far, Spagnuolo has shown that the model can determine whether the coronavirus can enter cells. “The model we will use has been created and validated by our lab,” he said.

He uses a benign pseudo-virus with a key protein on its surface that normally enables the coronavirus to attach to a human cell receptor, like a key unlocking a door into the cell. That model was developed in collaboration with pathobiology professor Sarah Wootton, who is part of a separate U of G team working to develop a vaccine for the COVID-19-causing virus.

Spagnuolo plans to use the new funding to rapidly screen about 1,000 bioactive molecules, including polyphenols and flavonoids, from various foods. He aims to see which ones may help bind the virus, keeping it out of cells and reducing infection risk.

His lab will also look at how much of the active molecule is required and how often; he will then work on preclinical testing with collaborators at McGill University.

“Our ultimate vision is to create a pill that can be taken before going into a situation where there is increased risk of exposure, such as entering a hospital, going grocery shopping or getting on a plane in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “Any time you’re at an increased risk of exposure, you could take this supplement as a preventive measure.”

Although his work will likely take longer than a year, Spagnuolo hopes results will still help in combatting the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a terrific investment in a project that epitomizes the University of Guelph’s approach to research, where partnership and teamwork will capitalize on our multidisciplinary excellence, generating transformative discoveries, and fuelling real-world innovations that address a truly global challenge,” said Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research).

“Under this generous, federally funded initiative, our world-class expertise in food and health will be brought to bear against deadly disease and thereby improve lives, today and tomorrow.”

Guelph MP Lloyd Longfield said, “I am pleased to see Canada’s Food University exploring ways to bind coronavirus using protein-based solutions, preventing the virus from attaching to critical organs and thereby reducing its short- and long-term health effects. Canadian scientists are leading the way in using fundamental science to fight this global pandemic, and the Canadian government is pleased to support that research with critical funding.”

Spagnuolo’s approach is based on earlier computer models developed by researchers worldwide predicting that bioactive molecules in food will help to inactivate infection-causing coronaviruses.

His U of G lab has long been evaluating bioactive molecules from foods for potential disease prevention and treatment. Earlier, Spagnuolo developed a nutraceutical supplement containing an ingredient in avocados that improves insulin resistance and cell metabolism.