Covid Scotland: Science hub being created to develop drugs for lung infections such as coronavirus

A new pandemic science hub is being created to develop treatments for lung infections such as Covid-19.

The hub at the University of Edinburgh will use translational genomics – following clues from the human genome to identify and rapidly test new treatments – along with experimental medicine methods to quickly evaluate and develop drugs for lung inflammation and injury caused by infection.

Independent investment partnership Baillie Gifford is supporting the launch with a philanthropic gift of £14.7 million and the university aims to secure £100m worth of investment in total.

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A dose of the Pfzier/BioNTech vaccine. Picture: Michael GillenA dose of the Pfzier/BioNTech vaccine. Picture: Michael Gillen
A dose of the Pfzier/BioNTech vaccine. Picture: Michael Gillen

As well as accelerating discoveries of treatments for Covid-19 and other human lung diseases, the Baillie Gifford Pandemic Science Hub aims to help prepare for future pandemics.

It will build on the success of GenOMICC and STOPCOVID, experimental medicine projects led by Professors Kenneth Baillie and Kev Dhaliwal, respectively.

Prof Baillie, GenOMICC’s chief investigator and professor of experimental medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The generous donation from Baillie Gifford enables us to build on recent advances in genomics, computing, engineering and experimental medicine – all major strengths at Edinburgh – to speed up the process of drug development, so that we’ll be able to find targeted therapies more quickly for new, and old, diseases.

“The hub will use clues from human genetics to develop new drugs, and then build technologies to rapidly test those drugs in critically ill patients.”

GenOMICC is a global research study that aims to understand the genetic factors that change outcomes in critical illness.

Early in the pandemic, its researchers found the first human gene ever to lead to a new drug treatment for infectious disease or critical illness.

Based on human genetic data from Covid-19 patients, they predicted the drug baricitinib would be an effective treatment.

This discovery, combined with other evidence, led to the decision to add the drug to the RECOVERY trial, which recently reported that baricitinib is effective at reducing death from severe Covid-19.

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STOPCOVID began in the early stages of the pandemic and rapidly established experimental medicine pathways for testing therapies in patients alongside accelerating technologies for delivering and measuring drugs in human lungs.

It has been funded by LifeArc and Baillie Gifford

The hub will bring together expertise from both projects.

To speed up the discovery of new treatments, the team will deliver microdoses of multiple medicines to key areas of patients’ lungs and observe if the drugs work on their own or in a combination.

Scientists said the constant risk of respiratory viruses, combined with the emergence of antibiotic resistance in respiratory diseases, means a radical new approach to streamlining drug development and evaluation is needed.

To deliver this vision the hub will draw on the expertise of the university’s data scientists, roboticists, engineers, chemists, biologists, regulatory experts, drug developers, toxicologists, clinicians and others.

Professor Dhaliwal, STOPCOVID lead and professor of molecular imaging and healthcare technology at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Innovation and team science are at the heart of this new push which will make a jump in experimental medicine capabilities.”

Mark Urquhart, partner at Baillie Gifford, said: “Our aim is to contribute towards better preparedness for new Covid-19 variants and other pandemics in the future.”

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