$6.3m turns up heat on cold virus

May 23 2017

Dr Nathan Bartlett

A drug compound being developed in Australia to combat the common cold virus and associated airway infections will be fast-tracked towards clinical trialing after securing a multimillion dollar commercialisation boost.

Respiratory research teams from Melbourne and Newcastle are employing a molecule called a TLR agonist to stimulate the body’s innate immune system and protect against rhinovirus infections, a leading cause of colds and a major trigger for illnesses such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

Delivered directly to the respiratory tract, the new therapy aims to block viral infection at the source whereas traditional cold remedies only dampen symptoms. In the case of asthma and COPD these symptoms can be severe and life-threatening.

Innavac, the company commercialising the technology, has now received a $6.3 million venture capital injection from the Medical Research Commercialisation Fund (MRCF) and Uniseed. MRCF is managed by Australian investment firm Brandon Capital Partners.

University of Newcastle viral immunologist Dr Nathan Bartlett will collaborate with Innavac and its founding scientist, Professor David Jackson (University of Melbourne), to accelerate the drug’s development. 

While TLR agonists aren’t a new discovery, Dr Bartlett says it has taken time to identify which have therapeutic potential and develop them into a format that can target viruses such as rhinovirus directly at the site of airway infection.

A key breakthrough came when Dr Bartlett was working at Imperial College London.

“A barrier to understanding how rhinoviruses cause respiratory disease was the lack of suitable pre-clinical disease models,” Dr Bartlett said.”

“I developed a new technique for purifying the virus with consistency and eventually succeeded … a working experimental rhinovirus infection model changed a lot of things.”

Dr Bartlett transferred his work to the Hunter Medical Research Institute’s (HMRI) world-leading respiratory research program in conjunction with the University of Newcastle (UON).

“It led us to focus on the cells lining the airways where rhinovirus replicates. Using cells donated by asthma and COPD patients we’ve identified disease triggering events in how the epithelium responds to the virus and interacts with the airway immune system,” he added.

 “The goal for Innavac is to deliver the TLR agonist to increase resistance to rhinovirus infection and associated symptoms. While the focus is on those with asthma and COPD because they are at high risk of severe rhinovirus-induced disease, it could help cold sufferers everywhere.”

While a long-lasting cold vaccine or cure has eluded scientists, Dr Bartlett is confident that the TLR agonist mechanism will provide protection against the 150+ known subtypes of rhinovirus as well as other respiratory pathogens such as influenza.

University of Newcastle Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research & Innovation), Professor Kevin Hall, said the funding boost was a wonderful outcome to ensure common infections, such as rhinovirus, didn’t lead to more life-threatening conditions.

“The ability to commercialise such a significant treatment will undoubtedly have a great impact on those at risk, as well as ensure the fantastic work of UON researchers at HMRI reach the community to provide real-world treatments for those who need it most,” he said.

HMRI Director Michael Nilsson said game-changing advances can emerge relatively quickly when provided with the right research environment and financial support.

““It is very rewarding to see research like this be taken closer to the next level of clinical trialing and commercialisation,” Professor Nilsson said. “I congratulate Dr Bartlett and the team on getting their project to this promising stage.

“The new technology could have a huge benefit as the common cold not only causes health issues but is known to cost the Australian economy millions of dollars in lost productivity.”

The head of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy at UON, Professor Darryl Knight said: “The work of Dr Barlett and Innavac is a fantastic example of how collaboration between researchers and industry can accerate the translation of basic medical discoveries into therapies that will have a positive impact on the lives of many Australians”.

About respiratory infections

Acute respiratory infections are a major cause of morbidity and mortality in humans worldwide, with infants and young children especially susceptible. Viral respiratory infections (VRI) represent the most widespread infectious disease in developed and developing countries, with direct and indirect costs conservatively estimated at $US25 billion dollars per year in the US. In Australia, influenza infection and pneumonia combined are the sixth leading cause of death and are estimated to cost the country $500 million a year.