Amid the pandemic, almost every research and development institute came forward to contribute and press their full potential into anything that could help the world. We are glad that the Ministry of Human Resource Development has addressed IIT Kharagpur to undertake seven projects that can be executed shortly to fight viral and bacterial diseases, although the main focus will be to resist the present predator of mankind, the novel Coronavirus.

Among the seven projects, one aims at developing a bodysuit for patients to prevent the spread of the infection. Professor Nishant Chakravorty from the School of Medical Science and Technology along with his research scholar Mrs. Lopamudra Das and Dr. Rashmi Sinha, a visiting consultant(Gynecology & Obstetrics) at the prestigious B.C. Roy Technology Hospital are presently working on it. We were fortunate to have interviewed them.

The route to build-up:

It has been planned so far that the group will primarily focus on indigenous phytochemicals (chemicals derived from plant sources) with potent antiviral and antimicrobial properties. The general idea is to develop an antiviral cocktail that is based on either water or alcohol or organic solvents or oil derivatives depending on the stability, maximum retention time on bodysuit material, and possible inhibition of the infectious agents by utilizing the extracts from various herbs that are native to South Asia.

The possible herbal candidates are going to be turmeric (Curcuma longa), tulsi (Ocimum sanctum), and garlic(Allium sativum). These herbs are the main focus because they have shown their deterrent behavior towards several categories of viruses and opens the doors of immense possibilities to target and combat SARS-CoV 2 in particular. Besides, these herbs will also effectuate a broad range of antimicrobial activities and other health benefits without reflecting any side effects.

Labelled figure of a normal PPE bodysuit. Source: SMST, IIT Kharagpur

The plan here is to build a virus protective bodysuit that is to be mustered into three layers:

  1. The top layer is going to be a non-absorbable, water repellant, and breathable material. The possible material to be used for fabricating is a spun-bond-polypropylene or polyester. The rationale for selecting such polymeric material is that it will serve as a  barrier for a virus or other infectious agents from outside to get absorbed on the surface of the bodysuit. The non-woven spun-bond polypropylene provides excellent properties like high strength and durability.
  2. The mid-layer serves to sustain the coated antiviral agents, and thus plays a role in inactivating the viruses possibly via different mechanisms. The absorbent pads of medical-grade coated with an antiviral cocktail on both sides serve a better purpose.
  3. The innermost layer in contact with the patient’s body will be made of comfortable blended material of cotton and other fabrics like hemp or linen with benefits of both the material in a single fabric.
Illustration of different layers of the bodysuit and their functions Source: SMST, IIT Kharagpur

To summarize, the idea behind creating different layers of bodysuit for patients is to minimize the spread of infection, creates a protective barricade between patients and the healthcare professionals, and to contain and confine the infectious materials from patients. In order to fight against the pathogenic agents, the antiviral cocktail layer is added to the middle layer. The uniqueness of the bodysuit lies in its layering, if the virus or other microbes breach the top layer and get absorbed, it will reach the antiviral coated layer and get inactivated or will lose its pathogenicity. Similarly, the infective agents released by patients will also get trapped in the mid-layer.

Novel virus paving a smooth path to interact with the host cells

The Infection cycle of coronavirus involves a chain of biological mechanisms. Firstly, the spike proteins present on the surface of the virus, act as a piece of the multifunctional molecular machinery that is solely responsible for mediating the virus into the host cells. Through one of its subunits, it binds to a specific receptor site of the host cell, namely Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). And with another subunit, it successfully fuses the viral and the host membranes and thus enables the RNA to enter into the host cell’s nucleus.

Labelled parts of the SARS-CoV-2(novel coronavirus) Source: Wikimedia

As a result of which the viral RNA uses the host cell’s RNA polymerase(an enzyme that synthesizes RNA from a DNA template) to start the replication and proliferation processes. Finally, newly spike proteins generated by translation of the newly synthesized mRNA(messenger RNA, which carries the genetic sequence of a gene) and RNAs by replication processes are assembled to give new viruses. Likely, the disintegrations of the host cells occur by rupture of the cell membrane to release the viruses.

Illustration showing the infection of the host cell by the SARS-CoV-2 Source: University of Tokyo

Availing the way to block

The prepared blend of extracts from the aforementioned indigenous herbs can act as a potential inhibitor against the structural proteins of the coronavirus namely spike, envelope, and membrane either individually or in combinations depending upon the chemical nature of the cocktail and can ostensibly degrade them.The degradation of structural proteins causes inhibition of the virus attachment, fusion of the virus molecules with the host membrane, and finally entry into the host cells which can cause the resistance to the viral infection.

The cocktail is potentially enabled to disrupt the viral envelope which initiates the lysis of the virus, fragmenting the envelope causes the virus to lose its functional receptors which are primarily responsible to transfuse its components into the host cell. Since the genome of novel coronavirus is a positive-sense, single-stranded RNA, the antiviral cocktail can function to inactivate its mRNA and thus blocks the replication, reverse transcription(DNA stably stores the genetic material in the nuclei of cells as a reference, transcription is a biological process by which the information in a strand of DNA is copied into a new molecule of messenger RNA), and translation(synthesis of proteins in the cell) processes of the virus.

Also, as the coronavirus reflects a tricky behavior by applying multiple entry strategies based on host tropism and pathogenicity, accordingly another important task of the remedial product is to clog the protease, which will presumably hinder the replication and pathogenesis of the virus.

Diagram showing how inactivation of the virus will take place Source: SMST, IIT Kharagpur 

On the commercial path

According to the research group, it will be a significant achievement if they successfully present us a promising bodysuit for patients with an ability to contain the infectious agents that will not only fight the deleterious virus but also it will be smoothly available to all the economic layers of the society - vital progress can be made in this regard, as the raw materials are going to be cheap and naturally procurable.

The bodysuit for the patient needs to be lightweight, comfortable, and breathable: thus it becomes a primary concern to fabricate a bodysuit with the above-mentioned indispensable features in it.  Therefore, they are looking up for extremely lightweight synthetic, natural, and blended fabrics with their possible advantages, properties, and applications.  For now, they are close to finalizing materials for different layers, but preliminary work related to the optimization of the antiviral cocktail and checking its efficacy needs to be performed.

According to the research groups, till the opted material for bodysuit is not available, it’s difficult to comment on the time duration needed to execute the manufacturing process; the main reason for hindering the whole process is the nationwide lockdown. Within such a dire period, a set of strategies has been laid down by them to make the bodysuit more effective for patients; Once laboratory activity resumes they will go for testing the optimized antiviral cocktail for its efficacy, toxicity to host cells and possible mode of action on pseudovirus.

Once the suit is fabricated and tested in-vitro, they are going to have an insight of its prophylactic demeanor on the patients. On usage, if it prescribes successful indications, then they will send a prototype to the company to do the required modifications in suits and then to various official regulatory bodies for scrutiny, approval, and finally to get it licensed. Once that's done successfully, they will move ahead for the markets.