Researchers backed with $6.3 million in hunt for a cure to the common cold

May 23, 2017

A cure for the sniffles has long eluded science, but research teams in Newcastle and Melbourne have just received $6.3 million for trials of a molecule they hope can block the virus that causes three-quarters of all colds.

The culprit that the scientists from Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) and University of Melbourne are after is rhinovirus, better known as the ‘common cold virus’.

​Despite the fact most people get laid low with rhinovirus two or three times a year, little research has previously gone in to combating it compared to its fellow respiratory infection, influenza.

“The flu gets all the publicity because it comes in a pandemic, but people are waking up to the fact there’s this insidious other little virus which costs society a huge amount in lost productivity, and is a big problem medically for people with existing respiratory diseases like asthma,” said Nathan Bartlett, a University of Newcastle viral immunologist.

Dr Bartlett spent 13 years at Imperial College in London, where he perfected a way of consistently producing rhinovirus in the laboratory so that humans would not have to be infected to test cures.

His reputation led University of Melbourne microbiologist Professor David Jackson to ask him to join his project developing a molecule called a ‘TLR agonist’, which it is hoped can stimulate the body’s immune system to prevent rhinovirus infections.

Dr Bartlett agreed and in 2015 transferred his work to HMRI’s respiratory research program at New Lambton Heights, a program he said is world-renowned.

The scientists are experimenting with the best way to deliver the ‘TLR agonist’ directly to the respiratory tract, aiming to block viral infections at their source, where traditional cold remedies only dampen symptoms.

Using cells donated by patients with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Dr Bartlett said the team had identified disease-triggering events in how tissue lining the airway responds to the virus and interacts with the airway immune system.

The $6.3 million investment, which has come from Australian venture investors Brandon Capital Partners and Uniseed, will be used to prepare the cold virus remedy for human trials, the first step toward lucrative approval by the US Food & Drug Administration.

Sufferers of respiratory diseases like asthma or COPD will be the first to be treated.

“Rhinovirus is known to trigger asthma attacks, so stopping that would be a huge breakthrough,” Dr Bartlett said. The remedy could even be delivered through an asthma ‘puffer’, although Dr Bartlett said this was yet to be finalised.

A treatment aimed specifically at children is the next priority.

“There’s a reason little kids always have snotty noses. They are an easy mark for rhinovirus, and then of course they go home and pass it on to the family,” he said.

The company formed to develop the cold virus remedy, Innavac, is part-owned by both the University of Melbourne and HMRI. However after their capital injection, Brandon Capital Partners and Uniseed are now its largest owners.

Innavac was a “small player” in what had become a global race to develop TLR agonists to combat cold viruses, Dr Bartlett admitted.

“But we’re well placed compared to the big pharmaceutical companies, we’ve got the better molecule,” he claimed.

Michael Bailey
The Australian Financial Review
23 May, 2017

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