Health

Covid-19 research: Inhaled multiple sclerosis drug 'speeds recovery'


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

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

A drug that coronavirus patients inhale slashes their risk of falling seriously ill and speeds up recovery, a major study has revealed in the second Covid breakthrough this week.

Just 13 per cent of hospitalised Covid-19 patients given SNG001 fell ill enough to need intensive care, compared to 22 per cent of those 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.

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 breakthrough makes SNG001 only the second drug scientifically proven to treat the disease, the other being the £5 steroid dexamethasone.

Synairgen – the company which has developed the new drug – has not revealed how much the treatment will cost. But similar treatments for MS on the NHS cost about £160 per patient for a month’s worth.

And it raises further hopes that an end to the pandemic could be in sight after the first results from Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine showed it is 90 per cent effective. 

It is hoped that, with a vaccine, multiple drugs and rapid testing at the UK’s disposal, Britain could soon put an end to the perpetual opening up and closing down of society through draconian lockdowns. 

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

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

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

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. 

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.

Further studies are being carried out by Southampton University to see if giving it to Covid-19 sufferers before they’re hospitalised. 

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. 

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

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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.

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‘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’.  

Further studies are being carried out by Southampton University to see if giving SNG001 to Covid-19 sufferers before they’re hospitalised. 

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. 

Synairgen – the company which developed SNG001 – will now have to present its findings to medical regulators around the world before it is approved.

Health chiefs will review the findings and decide whether to approve the treatment so doctors can treat Covid-19 patients with it.

The firm’s chief executive Richard Marsden said in July it would be able to deliver a ‘few hundred thousands’ of doses each month at some point during winter.

Because of the study’s size, however, the trial may have to be scaled up before getting approval. 

This process could take months, although governments around the world might be open to fast-tracking the drug if they are impressed by the findings. 

Only one drug, the £5 steroid dexamethasone, has so far been conclusively proven to treat coronavirus.

The Recovery trial found it reduced the risk of death by 35 per cent for patients on ventilators — the most dangerously ill — and by a fifth for all patients needing oxygen at any point. 



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