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This new drug might cure coronavirus without a pill or injection

Published Sep 28th, 2020 2:10PM EDT
Coronavirus Cure
Image: karn/Adobe

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  • A biotech company developed a spray that has been able to treat coronavirus infections and even prevent COVID-19 in labs.
  • Ena Respiratory developed a synthetic molecule called INNA-051 that can boost the immune response to clear the viral load, prevent COVID-19 transmission, and possibly prevent infection.
  • The drug might complement coronavirus vaccines in the future, assuming clinical trials go well — human trials are expected to start within a few months.

The first COVID-19 vaccines could be available in the western world before the end of the year, with as many as five of them being in the last stages of testing. The conclusions for some of these advanced clinical trials will be ready in a matter of months, and will finally tell us whether these promising experimental drugs are safe and effective at blocking novel coronavirus infections. Even if they don’t block infections for all patients, vaccines could still be successful if they prevent severe COVID-19 cases upon infection. Vaccine development in the East is going even faster, with Russia and China already using their drugs for emergency vaccination campaigns even without having finished Phase 3 trials. Regardless of the political divide or the way various governments are proceeding with vaccine development, there’s no guarantee that any approach will ultimately work.

That’s why pharmaceutical companies aren’t solely focusing on vaccines to prevent and treat COVID-19. Many other drugs are being studied in clinical trials, including a set of medicines that can both treat the illness and provide temporary immunity. Those are monoclonal antibody drugs that can prevent the virus from infecting cells by binding to the virus’ spike protein. A similar approach now comes from an Australian company that developed a nasal spray treatment for COVID-19.

Australian biotech company Ena Respiratory announced its new nasal spray on Monday, saying that a “gold-standard” randomized trial on ferrets has shown that the INNA-051 substance lowered the level of the virus by 96%. A trial on humans is set to begin in less than four months, pending toxicity studies and regulatory approval.

It’s unclear from the announcement how the INNA-051 compound works, and whether it’s a type of monoclonal antibody drug like the ones already being tested in human trials. Here’s how the company describes it:

The INNA-051 compound works by stimulating the innate immune system, the first line of defence against the invasion of pathogens into the body. By boosting the immune response in this way with INNA-051 prior to infection, the ability of the COVID-19 virus to infect the animals and replicate was dramatically reduced the PHE study showed. The study provides evidence that INNA-051 can be used as a stand-alone method of antiviral preventative therapy, complementary to vaccine programs. […]

INNA-051 is a synthetic small molecule and would be self-administered via an easy-to-use nasal spray, taken once or twice a week, with the treatment taking almost immediate effect. If human trials are successful and, given the unprecedented need for drugs to combat COVID-19, this prophylactic immune modulation therapy could be rapidly manufactured at scale and be available for use soon.

The company says the drug might be used to reduce transmission by infected people, including presymptomatic and asymptomatic patients. But INNA-051 could also be used to prevent infection.

“We’ve been amazed with just how effective our treatment has been,” Ena Respiratory Managing Director Dr. Christophe Demaison said in a statement. “By boosting the natural immune response of the ferrets with our treatment, we’ve seen a rapid eradication of the virus. If humans respond in a similar way, the benefits of treatment are two-fold. Individuals exposed to the virus would most likely rapidly eliminate it, with the treatment ensuring that the disease does not progress beyond mild symptoms. This is particularly relevant to vulnerable members of the community. In addition, the rapidity of this response means that the infected individuals are unlikely to pass it on, meaning a swift halt to community transmission.”

The company also has a bolder claim about the drug, saying that the spray might be useful not only against COVID-19 but also “future pandemics.” It’s unclear what aspects of the drug might make it effective against other viruses.

The ferret study has been published in non-peer-review form over at this link. The actual research explains that the synthetic molecule has been developed with TLR2/6 agonist properties:

Airways administration of INNA compounds has been shown to protect from lethal influenza virus infection, prevent viral transmission and secondary bacterial superinfections in mouse disease models. Intranasal (i.n.) treatment with INNA compounds also reduces viral load and lung inflammation in mouse models of rhinovirus infection (unpublished data). The demonstrated prophylactic benefit is associated with fast TLR2/6-mediated up-regulation of a series of innate immune response elements in airway epithelial cells, defined by early, rapid expression of NF-KB-regulated anti-microbial genes, including [interferon] and chemokines, that precede immune cell recruitment and support prolonged antiviral defence, suppresses viral load and virus-induced pulmonary inflammation (unpublished data).

While more research is required to see whether INNA-051 can have the same effect on humans as it does with ferrets, Ena Respiratory isn’t the only company looking at COVID-19 treatments that might be administered via sprays. Synairgen developed a nebulizer that can disperse interferon beta. The University of California San Francisco’s AeroNabs team also developed a spray based on llama-inspired nanobodies.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.