Trumbull High grad harnesses the power of enzymes to fight COVID-19

TRUMBULL — Emma Chory didn’t expect her work on detergent stains could help battle an international pandemic.

But the Trumbull High School graduate decided she wanted to be a chemical engineer, and it turns out the same technology that helps detergents remove stains may be able to help a person’s immune system remove coronavirus.

“In my normal work, we force proteins to have functions that are beneficial to us,” Chory said. “For example, the enzymes or proteins in laundry detergents normally only function at high temperatures, but we can engineer a protein that breaks down oils at cold temperatures.”

So how does that technology help fight the virus?

“The virus binds to an enzme called ACE2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2) that is on the surface of some cells in the body,” Chory said. “We decided, what if we could take this protein our body has that is the point of entry for the virus, and change it in a way that the virus likes better than the one that’s on our cells?”

The end result, Chory said, would be to create decoys that the virus would bond with, while leaving the patient’s heart and lung cells alone. Prevented from bonding to the patient’s cells, the virus could then be removed from the patient’s body through the normal immune system response.

“Let’s say someone sneezes on you, and you inhale the virus,” she said. “If it can’t get into your cells, it doesn’t do any harm.”

Chory said the research is still in its early stages, although the modified ACE2 has been tested and deemed safe.

“There is a very low risk of an immune response because the body already makes it,” she said.

Even with that obstacle cleared, though, developing a treatment is still a long way away, if it is possible at all. The majority of research projects end up going nowhere, she said.

“It’s been an incredible team effort to see all these groups come together,” she said. “We aren’t virologists, and we aren’t claiming to be. We’re good at engineering proteins.”

But science — and being part of a team — isn’t anything new for Chory. A two-sport athlete at THS, from which she gratudated in 2007, Chory said she has “always been a little nerdy.” While not playing on the school’s golf and track teams, she spent half of her senior year illustrating the school’s halls with drawings of the human heart, a graphing calculator, an atom diagram and Isaac Newton in mid-ponder.

Chory is the daughter of former Board of Education Chairman Loretta Chory and Planning and Zoning Commissioner Anthony Chory. She earned a degree in chemical engineering from Northeastern, then a master’s and PhD from Stanford before beginning her post-doctorate fellowship at MIT.