HMRI’s research response to COVID-19

Apr 9 2020

HMRI has multiple roles to play in the health response to COVID-19: continuing our vital research in investigating and developing new treatments whilst also providing information, guidance and reassurance to the community.

HMRI has world-class expertise in respiratory science, with discovery scientists working alongside respiratory clinicians, and that extensive knowledge is proving fertile ground for new research into this novel coronavirus.

Within weeks of the outbreak starting last November, with seed funding from HMRI, Associate Professor Nathan Bartlett and his team started working to address a gap in providing anti-viral treatment solutions to reduce the risk of infection of COVID-19. This anti-viral approach has potential as a drug for high-risk communities to increase their resistance to the infection in your airways, and subsequently reduce the capacity of transmission of the virus.

Infectious Diseases Clinician Professor Josh Davis is working with clinicians from around the country conducting a national COVID-19 clinical trial called ASCOT. The trial will randomise people currently hospitalised with the condition, and will be trialing specific drugs that may be of benefit in treating the virus. At present there are four arms to the trial, however, they aim to add new drugs as they become available.

The ASCOT trial is designed to be novel and adaptive in that it will continually assess drugs as the trial progresses, rather than just at the end. If a drug proves ineffective or effective, the trial will be adjusted accordingly. Unlike other, more traditional models of trials that focus on the same hypothesis over the course of it’s life without adapting to evolving information.

Respiratory clinician Professor Peter Wark highlights the importance of understanding not only how well drugs work, but how safe they are for use.

“The only way that we can do this is through clinical trials, and getting trials up and running quickly,” Professor Wark says. “We know that when patients are involved in clinical trials, generally outcomes are improved.”

Research is the key to dealing with a pandemic like COVID-19  – and that means research in the lab, and in clinical settings too. Professor Davis highlights the importance of a strong research community in dealing with emerging health issues such as the novel coronavirus. “If we didn’t have an active research sector in Australia, we would be way behind where we are. We not only understand the virus, but [as a result of our colleagues work] a diagnostic test has been developed which is being rolled out in labs across the nation.”

“This is why we are here,” Associate Professor Bartlett stresses. “Our primary purpose is to respond to community needs and this is probably the biggest community need that’s arisen in a very long time.”

HMRI is ideally positioned to respond to emerging health issues as we have excellent relationships with our colleagues at the John Hunter Hospital who have access to patient data, and we have excellent research capacity here at the Hunter Medical Research Institute. When you combine basic research and clinical expertise it allows us to deliver really translational research from the bench through to something we aim to get into clinical trials which will help us find answers and ultimately improve the health and wellbeing of our community.

For up to date information and advice about the current COVID-19 situation please visit the Australian Government Department of HealthNSW Health and World Health Organisation websites.

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