A new inhaled protein treatment has been found to accelerate recovery and lower the odds of developing severe COVID-19 in patients, researchers have said.
The drug, which was developed by Southampton-based biotech Synairgen, contains interferon beta-1a – a protein naturally produced by the body to fight viral infections.
SNG001 is inhaled using a nebuliser, in an attempt to trigger an immune response.
Scientists say their findings, which have been published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal, are proof-of-concept that the drug could help coronavirus patients in hospital recover.
However, the group note that more research is required with a larger, randomised clinical trial, as their study only involved 98 volunteers.
Professor Tom Wilkinson, from the University of Southampton, who led the study said: “The results confirm our belief that interferon beta, a widely known drug approved for use in its injectable form for other indications, may have the potential as an inhaled drug to restore the lung’s immune response and accelerate recovery from COVID-19.
“Inhaled interferon beta-1a provides high, local concentrations of the immune protein, which boosts lung defences rather than targeting specific viral mechanisms.
“This might carry additional advantages of treating COVID-19 infection when it occurs alongside infection by another respiratory virus, such as influenza or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) that may well be encountered in the winter months.”
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During the SNG001 trial, 48 volunteers were given the drug, while everyone else was given the placebo. It was double blind, meaning neither the volunteers nor the researchers knew which drug they were getting.
Patients who had SNG001 were more than twice as likely to recover, compared to those given the placebo, the researchers said.
Writing in a linked comment, Nathan Peiffer-Smadja, from Assistance Publique – Hopitaux de Paris, France, who was not involved in the research, said: “The number of patients enrolled in this pilot clinical trial is of course small.
“In addition, this study neither showed any impact of the evaluated treatment on time to discharge nor on mortality, although the study was obviously not powered to respond to the latter question.
“Larger randomised clinical trials are therefore needed to confirm these results.”
He added that the safety of inhaling the protein with a nebuliser “will be of special interest since nebulisation of interferon has no marketing authorisation for any indication yet”.