COVID-19 treatment trials of a Southampton-developed antiviral

When the pandemic struck, our CRF responded in record time to deliver COVID-19 treatment trials of a Southampton-developed antiviral we had helped develop for over a decade.

Key facts
  • A phase II COVID-19 treatment trial by Southampton researchers with Synairgen showed hospitalised COVID-19 patients treated with inhaled interferon beta (IFN beta) had up to 80% better odds of avoiding intensive care

  • The trial was completed in May 2020 - just two months after the nation went into lockdown

  • This was made possible by our CRF's critical role supporting two decades of research and development into inhaled IFN beta as a treatment for other lung conditions.

Rapid response

In May 2020, just two months after the nation went into lockdown, Southampton researchers completed a trial showing an anti-viral could treat hospitalised COVID-19 patients.

The results showed hospitalised COVID-19 patients treated with inhaled IFN beta had up to 80% better odds of avoiding intensive care than those who had standard care.

The CRF’s critical role in the development of inhaled IFN beta as a treatment for other lung conditions, over the previous two decades, made this speedy response possible.

Supporting research into inhaled IFN beta

IFN beta is a naturally occurring antiviral protein. Researchers from our NIHR Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) have shown it is critical to our lungs’ defences against viruses.

The researchers compared lung samples from people with and without asthma, after they were infected with rhinovirus, a key cause of asthma attacks. Our CRF’s bronchoscopy suite, laboratories, respiratory fellows and nurses made this possible.

Their results showed that people with asthma had a weaker IFN beta driven immune response to infection. They also found this could be reversed by giving them IFN beta. These results led to the creation of the University of Southampton’s spin-out company Synairgen in 2003.

Synairgen aimed to develop inhaled IFN beta as a treatment for people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It was intended to treat worsening symptoms (such as an asthma attack) caused by viral infection of the lungs.

Delivering trials for asthma and COPD

​In the two decades since then, those same specialist CRF teams and facilities have been fundamental to IFN-beta’s progress by enabling studies such as the 2010-12 asthma trial.

That study demonstrated that people with asthma who were given IFN-beta within 24 hours of the infection starting recovered lung function faster. They also needed less extra treatment.

It underpinned a USD225m licence deal with Astrazeneca. The resulting 2015-16 INEXAS trial showed significant benefit for those with difficult-to-treat asthma with viral infections.

Rapid switch to COVID-19

It was the professionalism and commitment of those CRF nursing teams that made the lightning quick trial of IFN beta as a treatment for COVID-19 possible. Switching direction and heading onto COVID-19 wards to deliver the study immediately, they ensured no time was lost.

The study was opened in just two weeks. That rapid setup was the result of tight integration of our CRF with our BRC and hospital R&D department. It was also due to decades of experience amongst CRF leadership.

The results of that trial were released in July 2020, driving international media attention and an immediate fivefold growth in Synairgen’s share price. They paved the way for a phase III trial of inhaled IFN-beta to start in January 2021, also delivered by CRF respiratory nursing teams.

IFN beta is a true example of the translational research CRFs and BRCs are there to do, taking a spark of discovery from the lab through to real patient benefit out on the wards.

Throughout the years of Synairgen and IFN beta’s development, the CRF has provided the specialist resources and expertise needed to deliver trusted data.