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Mass trial of repurposed MS drug for Covid begins at hospital in Hull


Scientists believe they have found an inhaler (pictured) that blocks coronavirus from progressing in the lungs

A mass trial of a repurposed Multiple Sclerosis drug that researchers hope will hugely reduce the chances of coronavirus patients becoming seriously ill has begun at a hospital in Hull.

The first patient in the trial of a medicine known as SNG001 received the treatment at Hull Royal Infirmary on Tuesday.

Earlier trials produced promising results with just 13 per cent of patients given it going on to need intensive care treatment compared to 22 per cent who received a placebo.

Patients treated with the drug were also twice as likely to recover after two weeks than those who didn’t, according to the research by Southampton University.

SNG001 uses a naturally-occurring protein called interferon beta which the body produces when it fights viral infections.

Interferon beta is a treatment for multiple sclerosis and is normally given via an injection. But SNG001 is inhaled into the lungs using a nebuliser to trigger a stronger, more targeted anti-viral response.

, Daily Echoed

Kaye Flitney was one of the 98 people enrolled in last year’s clinical trial led by Southampton University

Scientists believe Covid-19 shuts down the immune system’s ability to produce the protein in high doses, with the new treatment giving the lungs an essential ‘top-up’.

The drug was developed by workers at Southampton University Hospital and is being produced by biotech company Synairgen.

Treating a patient could cost in the region of £2,000, which is seen as relatively cheap compared to alternatives.

At Hull Royal Infirmary, Alexandra Constantin, 34, was the first person to receive the treatment as part of this new trial, after she was admitted to the hospital with coronavirus on Monday, the BBC reported.

The last study into the treatment was published in the Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal in November and looked at 98 hospital patients with the virus between March and May, at the height of Britain’s epidemic. 

WHAT IS SNG001? 

SNG001 uses a protein called interferon beta, which our bodies produce during a viral infection.

It is inhaled directly into the lungs using an inhaler, where it’s thought to trigger a stronger, more targeted anti-viral response.

Scientists believe Covid-19 shuts down the immune system’s ability to produce the protein in high doses, with the new treatment giving the lungs an essential ‘top-up’. 

The drug was developed by Southampton-based pharmaceutical firm Synairgen and trialled by researchers from the city’s university.  

Interferon beta itself is not new, but the technique by which it is administered is.

The protein is given via an injection to patients with multiple sclerosis. 

Studies trialling injectable interferon beta on Covid-19 have been fruitless. 

SNG001 is inhaled into the lungs using a nebuliser.

The new studies is being carried out by Southampton University to see if giving it to Covid-19 sufferers before they’re hospitalised helps. 

If this proves to be the case, it opens the door for patients to be able to treat themselves at home with a special inhaler. 

They were split in half, with one group receiving the new treatment and the other group being given a placebo.

The trial was carried out on a double blind basis, meaning neither the researchers nor the 98 patients knew who was receiving SNG001.

In the placebo group, 11 (22 per cent) of 50 patients were moved to ICU or needed mechanical ventilation after a fortnight. Three eventually died.

Of those who were given SNG001, just six (13 per cent) of 48 patients developed severe disease and there were no fatalities.

Patients on the drug were also twice as likely to return to full health by the end of the two-week period.

A total of 21 (44 per cent) in the SNG001 group recovered in that time, compared to 11 (22 per cent) patients in the placebo group.

Lead author Professor Tom Wilkinson, professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Southampton, 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.’

The authors have admitted that, while promising, their study had several limitations – most notably its small sample size.

There were also differences between the two groups at recruitment – patients in the SNG001 group had more severe disease at baseline and more patients had high blood pressure.

Whereas in the placebo group, there were a greater number of patients with diabetes and heart disease.

Diabetes and heart disease are two conditions which can make Covid-19 deadlier, which may have skewed the results of the trial.

Dr Nathan Peiffer-Smadja, an expert in Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases at Imperial College Londo, said larger trials should be able to address these limitations.

Reacting to the study, he 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 also added that the safety of inhaling interferon beta-1a using a nebuliser ‘will be of special interest since nebulisation of interferon has no marketing authorisation for any indication yet’.  



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