Can a Special Chewing Gum Slick Away COVID-19 from Saliva? Penn Researchers Start Clinical Trial to Find Oout

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Photo: Penn Dental Medicine

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have begun a small clinical trial to test whether a cinnamon-flavored gum (no, not Wrigley’s Big Red) could reduce the amount of Covid-19 in saliva — a potential way to cut transmission of the virus.

The gum, designed by Penn School of Dental Medicine’s Henry Daniell, is made from lettuce plant cells that were altered to express ACE2 — the receptor that the Covid-19 virus binds to in the body — which enables the gum to trap Covid-19 viral particles.

In July, Daniell and colleagues published a paper describing the design of their virus-trapping gums for various strains of Covid as well as the flu. But this isn’t the first gum they’ve made.

Daniell’s lab has long studied the oral delivery of plant-based drugs, but in recent years has also been looking at plant-based oral drugs for the mouth itself. Previously, they created a chewing gum that contained enzymes that could break down plaque buildup on teeth, Daniell told Endpoints News, an alternative to getting it painstakingly scraped off by your dentist. “And then came the pandemic,” Daniell said.

So they pivoted to make a virus-trapping gum.

In an earlier paper, Daniell and colleagues showed that their ACE2 chewing gum could substantially reduce Covid-19 virus count in saliva samples — a result they replicated with various strains of the Covid virus and two strains of the flu virus in the July paper. To move their product forward, they got an IND in May to test the gum in people and began the clinical trial this month, as first reported in Penn Today.

The Phase I/II trial will enroll 40 employees from Penn who have Covid-19, but aren’t getting any antivirals or hospital care for it. The employees will have to chew the gum for 10 minutes four times every day for three days, and collect multiple saliva samples over the course of their trial period.

The goal of the study is to (1) test the safety of the gum, as with all early-stage trials, and (2) see whether it can actually reduce the viral load in the saliva of the participants.

The study is set to finish early next year, according to

“Even though our entire trial is done with Covid-19 patients, the gum is really not intended for people after infection. And this is because nobody knows when they get infected, so this will be launched as a prophylaxis product,” Daniell said, meaning that it would be used to prevent disease.

The Covid-19 chewing gum could provide an affordable alternative in areas where the vaccine isn’t readily available, and it could also protect healthcare workers while they perform oral or dental care on unmasked patients, the researchers suggest in the July paper.

The theory behind the gum is that cutting the amount of virus in saliva dampens the risk of Covid-19 transmission and viral load. Covid-19 is transmitted through fluids from the mouth, nose, and eyes, and studies have suggested that the saliva contains especially high viral loads. But what happens once you spit out the gum? Does the effect last?

That’s another thing the researchers want to find out from the trial. “It is not known how long it takes for a patient to rebuild the virus in their mouth and in their saliva — in spite of hundreds of thousands of publications, nobody has tried it,” Daniell said, though the current projection his team is running with is four hours.

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