Cover your mouth


Alberta researchers’ spray could stop spread of disease through coughing

Tannara Yelland
CUP Prairies and Northern Bureau Chief

SASKATOON (CUP) — If Malcolm King’s new drug is developed it will change the way we deal with airborne diseases.

King has been studying the spread of airborne pathogens since 2005 at the University of Alberta, and his latest research, a spray, could help prevent humans from passing on diseases, like the common cold, to their friends and families.

Our current way of airborne disease prevention is ineffective, says King. He explains that wearing a mask is reasonably effective when worn by a healthy person for preventative purposes, such as by health professionals likely to come into contact with airborne diseases.

However, the current trend of wearing facemasks when one is already sick is not useful in preventing the spread of disease, and, even when worn properly, the masks need to be changed out every few hours to maintain their efficacy.

“Less effective is putting them on somebody who does have a dangerous lung disease such as influenza or tuberculosis because they get saturated fairly rapidly, within an hour or two,” said King. “And when the person continues to cough into or through the mask there’s escapage … Even with coughing gently into the mask, you eventually get particles coming directly out of the mask within a couple of hours.”

Another popular form of attempted disease prevention, known as cough etiquette, is also not particularly effective. Cough etiquette is the practice of coughing into one’s sleeve or elbow and is, King says, a distinctly Canadian trait.

“It turns out we’re one of the few countries in world where people do that, and it works reasonably well … It’s not perfect, though. You still see particles in the air. A fair amount escapes.”

Airborne diseases count among their numbers both the most common and the most deadly of human infections, from the common cold and flu to tuberculosis and smallpox. The last of these was extremely fatal before a vaccination campaign led to the last naturally occurring smallpox case in 1980.

Because there are so many different types of airborne diseases, King’s research has the potential to radically change the face of preventative medicine.

“I would like to think it will be picked up in two ways,” King said. “Certainly, protection of the health professions and other frontline health workers. If these people get taken out of the system of a pandemic then the whole system breaks down very quickly.

“Probably more important in the long run would be if [an antibiotic] could be available as an over-the-counter, non-prescription drug then people could be encouraged to take it when they’re coming down with something like the flu. They could prevent it from spreading to family and friends.”

When a person coughs, the air and particles expelled are referred to as aerosol. King and his associates developed a drug that adheres to the mucus in a person’s lungs, making it more cohesive. When the person coughs, he or she emits larger droplets of aerosol, and these settle much more quickly onto surfaces.

As a result, disease prevention methods that are already in use – such as hand wash and sanitizing gel – would be much more effective than they are currently. The larger, heavier droplets also fall out of the air faster, meaning there is a smaller chance that others will come into contact with the infected aerosol.

“We have the proto-drug,” King said. “The basic drug that is available as a powder that dissolves in water, but that’s not an effective way to deliver it.”

While the drug has not yet been developed in its final form, which King expects to be an inhaler similar to one used by asthma sufferers, it is almost ready to begin clinical trials. He also mentioned that the development of the drug in its saleable form should not take long as the U of A has talented engineers he can call on to help.

King expects the drug to go to its first phase of trials, which will prove that the drug is safe and causes no serious side effects, within the year. 

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