£1.6m project to identify novel drug combinations for COVID-19

The University of Liverpool is part of a new £1.6 million collaborative project that will harness local strengths in preclinical research to find new treatments for COVID-19.

The project, funded by the Medical Research Council, will be led by Queen’s University working alongside experts from the University of Liverpool and University of Oxford. The team will use a data-driven approach to identify novel drug combinations that are effective in blocking replication of SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19.

Despite the development of vaccines, there remains a huge global public health need for potent and effective antiviral therapies. Antiviral drugs are used specifically to treat viral infections by killing or preventing the growth of viruses.

The research project will screen drugs to characterise their antiviral potential against SARS-CoV-2 and assess and identify those that are suitable for deployment as part of a drug combination.

For other viral infections, treatment success has only been solidly demonstrated through deployment of combination therapies, and drug resistance has emerged quickly when single drugs have been used in isolation.  The resistance risk is currently unquantified for SARS-CoV-2 but drug combinations will diminish this risk and should also provide enhanced efficacy in patients.

The researchers will study the potential to evoke drug-resistant variants of SARS-CoV-2, to identify combinations in which this risk is minimised.

The University of Liverpool has been working with national and international partners since the outset of the pandemic to evaluate the potential of antiviral drugs for treatment and prevention of COVID-19. The University brings state-of-the-art methodology to the partnership in terms of small animal infection models and advanced mathematical modelling to identify doses with the highest chance of success in patient populations.

The current project dovetails seamlessly with other efforts being made in Liverpool such as the national phase I/II clinical trial platform, AGILE, which is well placed to exploit benefits of the outcomes of this research.

Professor Andrew Owen, Professor of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Liverpool, said: “The first generation of antiviral drugs for COVID-19 are beginning to emerge but drug combinations promise to exert higher potency and slow down the rate at which resistance emerges. It is critically important that medicines and vaccines are accessible by everyone and not just the privileged few. We hope this research will lay a foundation for potent future antiviral regimens that can be accessed globally.”

Professor James Stewart, Chair of Molecular Virology at the University of Liverpool, added: “We are enthusiastic about bringing our expertise and pre-clinical in vivo development platform to work with this consortium bringing through promising new anti-SARS-CoV-2 drugs. These have the potential of making an impact on disease burden worldwide.”

Principal Investigator, Professor Ultan Power from Queen’s University, said: “There are multiple benefits with discovering new treatments in this way. They have been through all the necessary checks so we know they are safe and readily available, they can be self-administered and used at home, helping to reduce the burden on the healthcare system.”

Professor Miles Carroll, Principal Investigator from Oxford University, said: “We are excited to join this anti-viral consortium with the ultimate aim of providing new drug candidates for the Antiviral Task Force. The fact that we are focusing on those drugs that are already licensed for human use, means those with significant anti-SARS-CoV-2 activity can be rapidly assessed in humans where they could have a significant impact on the disease burden in the community.”