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Developing new treatments for respiratory viral infections

Our research has discovered and developed a promising weapon against a range of respiratory viruses, including COVID-19, from within our own bodies.

Key facts

  • Interferon beta was identified by Southampton researchers as a key protein in our bodies’ prevention of respiratory viruses

  • Collaboration with spin-out company Synairgen has raised over £100m in funding and taken IFN-beta into large scale clinical trials

  • SARS-CoV2 trials showed a 72% reduction in risk of COVID-19 patients developing severe COVID-19


An emerging new treatment

Respiratory viruses are a leading cause of death and illness worldwide, hitting older people and those with respiratory conditions hardest. COVID-19 shows their potential to harm global health, yet few effective treatments exist.

Interferon beta is a naturally occurring protein. Its critical role in defending our airways was discovered by our BRC investigators in the early 2000s (published here). They compared lung samples from those with and without asthma after rhinovirus infections.

The results showed weakened IFN-beta driven immune responses in those with asthma. We went on to show that applying extra IFN-beta restored those responses, kick-starting its development as a treatment. That led to collaboration with University of Southampton’s spin-out company Synairgen. To date this has raised over £100m in funding and taken IFN-beta into large scale clinical trials.

Drug development deal

We proved the safety of inhaled IFN-beta in our 2009 trial looking at preventing sudden worsening of symptoms (‘exacerbations’) in severe asthma. We went on to show that IFN-beta sped-up recovery of lung function compared to placebo. It also reduced the need for extra treatment (published here).

Those data led to a $225m drug development deal with AstraZeneca. The resulting INEXAS trial showed significant benefit for those with difficult-to-treat asthma.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) causes debilitating breathing difficulties. In 2017 we showed that standard treatment for managing symptoms (inhaled corticosteroids) limited IFN-beta driven responses to infection. That led to our 2019 national trial showing that IFN-beta treatment improves lung function.

Focus on COVID-19

When COVID-19 struck we pivoted IFN-beta into one of the first treatment trials for SARS-CoV2 infection. We completed this in under two months (published here). It showed a 72% reduction in risk of COVID-19 patients developing severe COVID-19. IFN-beta also drove faster recovery from symptoms. That led to a large-scale trial in over 100 centres worldwide, completing in autumn of 2021.

Our aim is to prevent anxiety, distress and death caused by respiratory infections. IFN-beta remains central to this in our future work. But we will also use the IFN-beta experience and our wider drug development expertise to build a continuous pipeline of new therapies that do exactly that.

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