Donors to Hunter Medical Research Institute have helped fund research into a new nasal spray that could stop COVID-19

Mar 8 2022

Called INNA-051, it boosts the immune system to fight common colds in the nose and throat before it reaches the lungs. Now, it’s proved remarkably successful in reducing viral replication of COVID-19 as well. This medical advancement shows what can happen when you donate to HMRI.

Imagine eating out, going to the movies, attending a concert, or visiting a museum. Imagine hitting the gym again.

And if you’re concerned about exposure to COVID-19, a simple nasal spray can stop it from ever reaching your lungs.

Thanks to an $80,000 grant – funded by donors like you – HMRI’s Associate Professor Nathan Bartlett has helped show that a nasal spray called INNA-051 protects against respiratory viral infection. This has enabled testing to begin in people to show protection against COVID-19.

In April 2022 it enters Phase 2 clinical trials on a global basis. Soon, it could be available to protect the most vulnerable in our community, such as the elderly, people with chronic diseases and people with a suppressed immune system.

INNA-051 was originally being researched as a way to help people with asthma and other chronic diseases from severe illness caused by cold and flu viruses. But when COVID-19 arrived in early 2020, Associate Professor Bartlett pivoted.

Donations from people like you helped HMRI to provide $80,000 in seed funding to test INNA-051 as a way to stop COVID-19.

Associate Professor Bartlett’s lab here at HMRI sits just across the road from the John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle. He needed live airway cells from both healthy people and patients with respiratory disease – and they needed to be immediately placed into cultures.

His colleagues and team worked closely with the hospital’s staff and patients to collect these precious samples and bring them to his lab.

And it was critical to showing that INNA-051 significantly boosts the immune system needed to inhibit replication of the virus that causes COVID-19.



Like the cold or flu, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) enters through your nose and throat – and that’s where the infection begins. It might make your nose runny or your throat sore. You might even lose your sense of smell.

If the infection is not stopped before it reaches your lungs, it can cause real problems. That’s when you run the risk of ending up seriously ill in intensive care and on a ventilator. 

In the clinical trials now underway, we hope to show that the INNA-051 nasal spray can be used to stop the virus in the nose and throat before it can develop into severe Covid-19.



This nasal spray will initially be directed to the most vulnerable – the elderly, people with chronic diseases and weakened immune systems. Eventually the treatment could help anyone who works around a lot of people and therefore at high risk of infection.

If you are fully vaccinated, this nasal spray provides another layer of defence against breakthough cases, particularly with the ever present threat of novel viruses and variants that are better able to evade vaccines.

And whilst many people are vaccinated, there are others in the community who for various reasons are not vaccinated. This nasal spray could help protect them as well.


The federal government funds only 9% of medical research applications each year. Right now HMRI has scores of promising research projects that just can't be funded.

Research into cancer, asthma, heart disease, COPD, and diabetes. Projects to help people recover better after a stroke.

Research into pregnancy and reproduction for the 1 in 6 couples in Australia who are infertile.

And finding better ways for people to recover from brain injuries and other trauma like car accidents.


John Wolfenden got COVID-19 last year. He was single-dose vaccinated at the time. And he says he would have jumped at the chance to use a nasal spray if had been available.

He felt only mild symptoms for the first few days, which is common. The virus was only inside his upper respiratory system (his nose and throat) but it had not yet reached his lungs.

A nasal spray like INNA-051 could have stopped it right there.

After a few days, he took a terrible turn. He had trouble just standing and walking around. He felt dizzy and kept losing his balance. He ended up in hospital and that’s when his battle really started, both physically and psychologically.

“I’m a strong guy, and I’m always keen to help someone out”, he told me. “And then I was unable to walk. I couldn’t shower myself. I could only use the bathroom using a wheelchair. And this was all within a few days of being an active and energetic type of person.”

“A physiotherapist came by to teach me how to start walking again. I’m a strong guy but I was being treated like an infant. I really struggled with that mentally as much as anything.”

John recovered after 14 days in hospital. In the end, he didn’t need intensive care or a ventilator. He is a strong man indeed!

John volunteers as a counsellor for prison inmates who are about to be released from jail. He caught COVID-19 (along with 16 others) as part of doing that important and selfless work.

He is exactly the kind of person who could have been spared COVID-19 with a nasal spray like INNA-051.


We asked Associate Professor Bartlett what your support means to him and here is what he had to say:

“My research really depends on HMRI’s donors. I have to extend a huge amount of gratitude to each and every one of them. You made it possible for me to do this urgent research – quickly – and you really moved the ball forward. I can’t thank you enough.”