By Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) – British pharmaceutical company Synairgen said on Wednesday it had the go-ahead to test a drug that could boost the lung function of patients with coronavirus, potentially assisting in the global fight against the pandemic.

The company said it had received expedited approvals from regulators to trial the drug – an inhaled formulation of interferon-beta-1a – in hospital patients who have COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Explaining the drug’s mechanism, Chief Executive Richard Marsden said interferon-beta was a naturally occurring protein instrumental to the body’s antiviral responses.

“Interferon-beta is like the conductor of the orchestra, you make it when you’ve got a cold,” he said in an interview. “It does all kinds of things to counter the effects of viruses.”

He said there was evidence that a deficiency in producing the protein could explain the enhanced susceptibility of at-risk patient groups to develop severe lower respiratory tract disease during respiratory viral infections.

“Another quirk to coronavirus is that the disease itself suppresses the production of interferon-beta in the lungs, and it does this to evade the immune system,” he said.

The drug, which has already shown benefits in two trials for asthma, aims to boost the amount of interferon-beta in the lungs, helping either prevent or diminish cell damage and viral replication, he said.

The pilot phase of the study has been given the green light by Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and Health Research Authority. The study, which is expected to start imminently, will involve 100 COVID-19 patients in hospitals in Britain.

(Reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by Mark Potter)