A cure for the common cold?

A drug compound being developed in Australia to combat the common cold virus and associated airway infections is set to be fast-tracked

The molecule is being pushed for clinical trialling after securing a multi-million 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.

Delivered directly to the respiratory tract, the new therapy aims to block viral infection at the source whereas traditional cold remedies only dampen symptoms.

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 says.

“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 says.

“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 says he is confident that the TLR agonist mechanism will provide protection against the 150-plus known subtypes of rhinovirus as well as other respiratory pathogens such as influenza.

HMRI Director Michael Nilsson says the new technology could have a huge benefit as the common cold not only causes health issues but cost the Australian economy millions of dollars in lost productivity

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