COVID-19: Scientists get £15million premium after COVID study to tackle deadly respiratory disease | UK News


Goutam Das doesn’t remember much about his five weeks in intensive care with COVID-19.

Mainly the nightmares and trouble breathing.

“It’s almost as if someone put you under water. It’s that kind of feeling… you’re just desperate for oxygen.”

He’s back at work now, putting his ordeal behind him. But while he was in intensive care, Goutam wasn’t suffering entirely in vain.

He is one of thousands of people who are seriously ill COVID the University of Edinburgh researchers gave a sample of their DNA.

It has now become a genetic resource that could be a gold mine for discovering new drugs – not just to treat COVID – but other forms of severe pneumonia, a leading cause of death in intensive care units.

With the pandemic still at its peak, Prof Kenneth Baillie’s team in Edinburgh used genetic evidence gleaned from critically ill patients like Goutam to show that the arthritis drug baracitinib would help treat the severe pneumonia.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time in infectious disease and intensive care medicine that we can go directly from a genetic discovery to a drug,” says Prof. Baillie.

The results were part of the GenOMICC study which has identified more than 16 genetic changes underlying the severe pneumonia that killed many of those who died from COVID-19.

A GenOMICC study identified more than 16 genetic changes underlying severe pneumonia

Crucially, the same syndrome also causes death from common fatal conditions such as sepsis, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and pneumonia.

Now Prof Baillie and his team have received £15million from Scottish investment firm Baillie Gifford (no relation to Prof) to turn more of their genetic findings into new drugs to combat these conditions.

A new Pandemic Science Hub at the university brings together under one roof the disciplines that gave them their first drug breakthroughs: human genetics, to identify new drug targets based on genetic signals found in critically ill patients; a drug manufacturing facility to manufacture experimental drugs based on these goals, and a technology team to develop better ways to screen these drugs in patients.

And it is with Prof. Kev Dhaliwal leading this team that I see a donated human lung breathing again.

The deepest part of the human lungs, where the oxygen from the air we breathe dissolves into the blood, is “like a black hole,” he tells me. “It’s a bit like the outer cosmos where we don’t really know what’s going on.”

Because of this, even the most promising drugs identified based on a patient’s genetics may not behave as expected once they reach their intended target deep in the lung tissue.

The experimental setup we are looking at aims to overcome this hurdle.

Prof Baillie and his team have been awarded £15million to develop new drugs to fight deadly diseases

An ex-smoker’s donated lungs, unsuitable for donation, are inflated by a ventilator.

Then a robotic arm is taught to guide an ultra-fine fiber optic microscope deep into the lungs. A parallel tube allows researchers to place their experimental medicine in a precise location.

Using the robot allows them to inject several different drugs into the same lung in tiny doses, then return to the same spots to see if the drug is having the desired effect.

The next step, after tweaking the robot on donated lungs, is to bring its robotic technology to the hospital and use it to test its experimental drugs on patients with severe pneumonia.

“We can optimize, we can choose which ones to continue or pass on to other test systems,” says Prof. Dhaliwal.

“It allows us to do this with a small number of patients and get answers very quickly.”

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