DURHAM, N.C. – Researchers with a Triangle-area biotech firm on Thursday said experiments with a known immune booster yielded some surprising results.

Scientists at Durham-based KNOW Bio infected host cells with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19. They then exposed the cells to a solution containing nitric oxide. Within 24 hours, 99.9 percent of the viruses were dead. More importantly, the remaining viruses were unable to replicate and the host cells were undamaged.

“You can kill the virus, but damaging its ability to replicate? That is truly an amazing discovery,” CEO Neal Hunter says.

Nitric oxide is a compound the human body produces naturally. Scientists had proposed using it to combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but Hunter says nobody had tried doing so.

When additional levels were introduced through therapeutic doses in the KNOW Bio experiments, chief scientific officer Mark Schoenfisch says the virus was far less able to bind with the host cells. Even if the virus did get through, its ability to replicate was severely impaired. And even if the virus did get into the host cell, it was unable to burst the cell wall and move on to other cells.

“Viral replication is what leads to infection, and so being able to prevent viral replication or inhibit viral replication is really key to controlling COVID infection,” he says.

The process still needs to be peer-reviewed and any proposed treatments would have to be approved by the FDA. Hunter says normally this would take a few years but his company could seek an emergency use authorization. This would speed up the process.

In the meantime, Hunter already has big plans for nitric oxide treatment. He says it could prove useful against a host of upper respiratory infections.

“So we don't just kill SARS-CoV-2. We're going to kill SARS-CoV-3 when it comes out, most likely, because nitric oxide killed SARS-CoV-1 (sic) when it came out in 2005. So we're going to kill influenza, we're going to kill pseudomonas, all those nasty things in your lungs, we can eliminate,” he says.

Hunter says there is always a risk the virus could develop chemical immunity to nitric oxide but he doesn't think it's likely given the way nitric oxide interacts with cells.