In the study, published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, researchers in Australia used an enzyme that binds to the coronavirus RNA and degrades the part of the genome (set of genetic information) it needs to replicate inside human cells.
In this way, SARS-CoV-2 was prevented from multiplying and infecting other cells, according to the research authors.
For this work, the scientists adapted the CRISPR "molecular scissors" technique, known for its precision, so that it recognised the new coronavirus.
"Once the virus is recognised, the enzyme is activated and cuts the virus into pieces," Sharon Lewin, lead author of the research from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, quoted by the AFP news agency, simplified.
The technique also proved effective in halting viral replication in virus samples belonging to the Alpha variant lineage, first identified in the UK in late 2020.
"We still need better treatments for people hospitalised with Covid-19. Current possibilities are limited and at best only reduce the risk of death by 30 percent," Sharon Lewin pointed out.
According to the director of the Peter Doherty Institute, despite the promising results obtained in the laboratory, which the scientists want to validate in a next step 'in vivo' with animals, it will take "years, not months" for the CRISPR technique to translate into widespread treatments.
In their view, however, the 'molecular scissors' could prove useful in the fight against Covid-19 by helping to develop "an inexpensive, non-toxic, oral antiviral drug".
The CRISPR technique has revolutionised genome manipulation for its precision and ease of use, allowing the DNA or RNA strand to be cut at a specific, selected location and the genetic code inside the cell to be modified.
Its application has shown promise for eliminating genetic mutations at the origin of cancers in children.
Clinical trials are being developed with this technique for the treatment of other cancers and rare genetic diseases.