A new multi-million pound research programme to develop treatments for lung infections such as COVID-19 and future pandemics has been announced at the University of Edinburgh with support from a significant donation by Baillie Gifford.
The Baillie Gifford Pandemic Science Hub will use translational genomics – following clues from the human genome to identify, and rapidly test new treatments – with experimental medicine methods to quickly evaluate and develop drugs for lung inflammation and injury caused by infection.
It will combine Edinburgh’s world-class ability to determine a person’s genetic predisposition to lung injury with advanced interventional robotics for drug delivery, cutting-edge sensing and sampling technologies, and innovative clinical trial design.
Baillie Gifford is supporting the launch with a philanthropic gift of £14.7 million. The University aims to secure a total of £100m investment to accelerate discoveries to drive clinical translation in COVID-19 and other human lung diseases, as well as aiding preparedness for future pandemics.
This investment will accelerate partnerships and translational opportunities with other academic organisations, industry and other collaborators worldwide. The hub will attract additional interdisciplinary research scientists and clinical leaders to drive this work forward.
The hub builds on the success of GenOMICC and STOPCOVID, experimental medicine projects led by Professors Kenneth Baillie and Kev Dhaliwal, respectively.
GenOMICC is a global research study that aims to understand the genetic factors that change outcomes in critical illness.
Early in the pandemic, GenOMICC found the first human gene ever to lead to a new drug treatment for infectious disease or critical illness. Based on human genetic data from COVID-19 patients, they predicted the drug baricitinib would be an effective treatment.
This discovery, combined with other evidence, led to the decision to add the drug to the RECOVERY trial, which recently reported that baricitinib is effective at reducing death from severe COVID-19.
GenOMICC recently discovered a further 16 genes underlying severe COVID-19, potentially leading to even more effective treatments.
Professor Kenneth Baillie, GenOMICC’s chief investigator and Professor of Experimental Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The generous donation from Baillie Gifford enables us to build on recent advances in genomics, computing, engineering and experimental medicine – all major strengths at Edinburgh – to speed up the process of drug development, so that we’ll be able to find targeted therapies more quickly for new, and old, diseases.
“The hub will use clues from human genetics to develop new drugs, and then build technologies to rapidly test those drugs in critically ill patients.”
STOPCOVID began in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and built on the strengths of the Edinburgh BioQuarter in translational medicine and technological capabilities in lung disease. Edinburgh BioQuarter is a leading global destination for healthcare delivery, groundbreaking medical research and life sciences innovation.
The team rapidly established experimental medicine pathways for testing therapies in patients alongside accelerating technologies for delivering and measuring drugs in human lungs. STOPCOVID has also been generously funded by LifeArc and Baillie Gifford.
Professor Kev Dhaliwal, STOPCOVID lead and Professor of Molecular Imaging and Healthcare Technology at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Innovation and team science are at the heart of this new push which will make a jump in experimental medicine capabilities.
“Fusing disciplines in a translationally focused environment to accelerate therapies and approaches for lung inflammation is a major challenge and we are delighted that we are being supported by Baillie Gifford to establish this hub and also recruit leaders from across the world.”
The hub will bring together expertise from both projects, with critical care patients at the heart of the pathway.
To quicken the discovery of new treatments the team will deliver microdoses of multiple medicines to key areas of patients’ lungs and observe if the drugs work on their own or in a combination.
The constant risk of respiratory viruses, combined with the emergence of antibiotic resistance in respiratory diseases, means a radical new approach to streamlining drug development and evaluation is needed.
To deliver this vision the hub will harness the expertise of the University’s leading data scientists, roboticists, engineers, chemists, biologists, regulatory experts, drug developers, toxicologists, translational managers and clinicians.
Mark Urquhart, partner at Baillie Gifford, said: “We have been genuinely excited to see the results of the GenOMICC and STOPCOVID projects and our investment aims to accelerate these programmes. The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on how vulnerable the world is to this type of virulent viral infection. Our aim is to contribute towards better preparedness for new COVID-19 variants and other pandemics in the future. We see great opportunity in the innovative approaches taken by the University of Edinburgh.”