Getting to grips with . . .

How an inhaled drug could stop Covid’s most severe symptoms

Multiple sclerosis treatment could be repurposed to cut serious respiratory problems

A major trial of a drug which could stop Covid-19 patients from developing serious respiratory problems is giving hope that infections could become more treatable in the future.

The treatment involves inhaling a protein called interferon beta, which the body produces when it gets a viral infection, and is being studied in a mass trial overseen by the University of Southampton.

Early findings published in The Lancet last year suggested the treatment, developed at Southampton University Hospital and produced by Southampton-based biotech company Synairgen, cut the odds of a Covid patient developing severe disease by almost 80%.

How does it work?

Interferon beta, which is regularly used in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, is part of the body’s first natural line of defence against viruses, warning it to expect a viral attack.

Experts believe that Covid-19 blocks the production of interferon beta as part of its strategy to evade our immune systems. However, the new treatment sees it delivered directly into the airways via a nebuliser that makes the protein into an aerosol.

It is hoped that a direct dose of the protein in the lungs will trigger a strong anti-viral response. The Lancet study found that patients given interferon beta were not only less likely to develop severe respiratory problems, but that even patients who had already developed serious breathing problems were twice as likely to recover fully over a 16-day treatment period.

What next?

Writing on The Conversation, Gordon Dent, a senior lecturer in pharmacology at Keele University, says that “these results need to be confirmed in larger studies comparing the drug with other treatments”, adding that the drug’s efficacy is also being “investigated in combination with other therapies, including remdesivir”.

The team running the trial, which includes 600 patients in 20 countries, say they hope it will be completed by early summer. 

Tom Wilkinson, professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Southampton, said: “If we had a positive study, we would hope to move rapidly into scaled manufacture and delivery of the drug in clinical practice.”

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