GSI/FAIR research supports the fight against corona


GSI/FAIR uses its research potential and unique infrastructure to contribute to the management of the current corona pandemic. In several areas at GSI/FAIR, scientists are working to provide new insights and technologies that may help to fight the corona virus SARS-CoV-2. To this aim, the accelerators and laboratories on the Darmstadt campus are also being used. The laboratory is operational, while strictly abiding to safety regulations.

Four projects are currently being developed to exploit the possibilities of GSI and FAIR research in the corona crisis and to expand the fundamental knowledge about the virus. The researchers are working on contributions to the development of vaccines as well as on therapeutic low-dose irradiation options for pneumonia caused by SARS-CoV-2. Other projects aim at the development of faster and optimized virus detection and at the possibility of producing improved viral filtration masks.

As always, GSI/FAIR actively cooperates with other research centers: one of the measures involves collaboration with the Helmholtz-Zentrum für Infektionsforschung (HZI) in Braunschweig, another is in cooperation with the University Hospitals in Frankfurt and Erlangen. The other two projects are developed in cooperation with universities in the USA and Argentina as well as the University Hospital Gießen-Marburg and the company TransMIT GmbH in Gießen.

Overview of the four specific projects:

Ion radiation for vaccine development

In order to develop vaccines using inactivated viruses, researchers need methods that inactivate the virus while causing as little damage to its structure as possible — in particular the viral envelope that is the key to the immune response. In past years, the inactivation of viruses for vaccine development has been carried out with conventional gamma radiation. However, the use of high doses of gamma rays inevitably leads to damage of the structural-and membrane-associated proteins of the virus that should be recognized by the immune system following vaccination to promote efficient protection. The new project therefore plans to irradiate influenza and SARS-CoV-2 viruses with high-energy heavy ions. Energetic ions are able to inactivate the virus by inducing breaks in the viral RNA with only a few passages in the envelope, thus minimizing membrane damage. The resulting viruses will then be examined at the HZI in Braunschweig for their ability to promote the formation of virus-binding and neutralizing antibodies after vaccination.

Therapeutic effect of low-dose radiation in SARS-CoV-2 induced pneumonia

In a preclinical study, GSI researchers plan to examine whether pneumonia caused by SARS-CoV-2 can be treated with low-dose radiation. Partners are the University Hospitals in Frankfurt and Erlangen. For this purpose, the anti-inflammatory effects in the lung will be compared under two alternative conditions: One is the use of a typical low-dose X-ray radiation, as it has already been administered in the past for the treatment of pneumonia, the other is the use of an increased radon activity compared to the environmental activity. The scientists hope to gain insights into the stage of the disease at which this might be a suitable approach. It is also important to find a balance between the desired anti-inflammatory effect in the lungs and undesired immunosuppressive, systemic effects of the radiation. In this way, mild exposure to radon could be used as a moderate immunomodulator.

Improved and fast virus detection with single nanopore membranes

GSI is working together with international partners on the development of highly sensitive sensors based on nanopores. These sensors have the potential to detect viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 selectively and quickly. For this purpose, a membrane with a single nanopore provides excellent detection conditions. At the GSI accelerator facility, polymer foils are irradiated with individual ions. Chemical etching of a single ion track creates a single nanopore whose geometry and diameter can be adjusted very precisely. In cooperation with external groups, the surface of the nanopores is specifically functionalized in order to monitor the transport of specific particles, molecules or even viruses through the nanopore. Sensors based on nanopores have the potential for high sensitivity and fast detection response. Together with the collaboration partners, opportunities are currently being investigated to support research projects for the detection of viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 or specific filtration processes using the track-etched GSI membranes.

Ion-track membranes with tailored nanopores for viral filtration masks

In this project it is planned to use track-etched nanopores to develop safe respiratory protection filters and thus improve breathing masks. At GSI, corresponding polymer foils with monodisperse and oriented nanopores are produced by ion irradiation and subsequent chemical track-etching. The diameter of the pores can be tailored exactly to size. With an adjustable diameter up to 20 nanometers, such nanopores are significantly smaller than the size of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. The radiation process at the GSI accelerator facility also allows the number of nanopores to be precisely adjusted (up to about 10 billion per cm2). Together with the collaboration partners, GSI scientists are currently discussing possibilities to investigate the suitability and optimal parameters of track-etched membranes as filters for respiratory masks. Respiratory masks optimized in this way could provide better protection against a virus infection in pandemic situations. (BP/IP)