Three university professors have become overnight millionaires after a ‘major breakthrough’ in their coronavirus drug.
Ratko Djukanovic, Stephen Holgate and Donna Davies created their Southampton-based company Synairgen almost two decades ago.
Shares in the company, which was involved in a successful trial of a drug to treat COVID-19 this week, sky-rocketed by 3,000 per cent almost overnight.
Professor in medicine Djukanovic, 65, saw his 0.56 per cent stake in the company jump in value in one day from around £300,000 to £1.6m, reported The Guardian.
The 0.59 per cent stake held by Holgate, 73, a professor of immunopharmacology, rose to £1.7m.
Ratko Djukanovic (pictured), Stephen Holgate (top left) and Donna Davies (top right) created their Southampton-based company Synairgen almost two decades ago
It is thought the third founder and professor of respiratory cell and molecular biology, 67-year-old Davies, holds a similar-sized stake through another company.
In a study of 101 people, coronavirus patients who were given a special formula of the professor’s interferon drug, SNG001, were two or three more times more likely to recover than those given a placebo.
Patients given the drug directly into their airways via a nebuliser, a powerful inhaler, were 79 percent less likely to become seriously ill with the disease.
For those on the drug breathlessness was ‘markedly reduced’.
Richard Marsden, Synairgen’s chief executive, told The Guardian: ‘[For them] it doesn’t get better than seeing a drug you created treating real patients, and the side-effect of that is you make money… If people are clever and find something useful, they should get rewarded economically.’
Their shares in the company, which was involved in a successful trial of a drug to treat COVID-19 this week, sky-rocketed by 3,000 per cent almost overnight
Kaye Flitney is one of the 101 people enrolled in the clinical trial carried out by British pharmaceutical firm Synairgen
The three professors, who first discovered people with asthma and chronic lung disease lack a protein called interferon beta in 2004, are now worth more than a million pounds each.
Interferon beta can help the body fight off the common cold. If the missing protein is replaced the body’s natural defences are better able to beat a viral infection.
The clinical trial results were published on July 21, and by lunchtime Synairgen shares were up by 540 per cent.
The company directors’ combined 2.6 per cent stake has now been valued at more than £7million.
Marsden, who holds 0.3 per cent of stocks, said the 204p share price at close of day Friday was ‘reasonable’.
‘It is a major breakthrough in the treatment of hospitalised Covid-19 patients,’ Marsden added. ‘We couldn’t have expected much better [trial] results than these.’
The trial has now been expanded to patients suffering with milder coronavirus symptoms at home, in an effort to lower the number of cases in hospitals.
And the drug manufacturer Rentschler has been ordered to start producing more than a million doses of the drug ahead of an anticipated second wave in the winter.
BORIS JOHNSON SAYS HE IS NOT CONFIDENT BRITAIN WILL GET A COVID-19 VACCINE BY THE END OF 2021
Boris Johnson said there may not even be a Covid-19 vaccine ready by the end of next year and that we ‘can’t count in it riding over the hill like the cavalry’.
Speaking in a television interview this morning the Prime Minister said he has his ‘fingers crossed’ but couldn’t be 100 per cent confident that a vaccine will be found.
The British public must keep following social distancing, washing their hands and wearing masks in confined spaces, Mr Johnson said, to ‘drive the virus down by our own collective action’.
His comments come as officials today announced deals with two foreign pharmaceutical firms to buy 90million doses of separate experimental vaccine candidates.
UK officials are now taking a spread-betting approach to vaccines, buying up stocks of various untested ones that they think could work, in the hope that one or more of them will pay off.
Agreement has been reached for 30million doses from German firm BioNTech and the US company Pfizer, and 60million doses from France’s Valneva.
The figure is in addition to the 100million doses of vaccine that are being developed by Oxford University in partnership with AstraZeneca, as well as another at Imperial College London which started human trials in June.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma said the new agreements would ‘ensure the UK has the best chance possible of securing a vaccine that protects those most at risk’.
But the government’s vaccine tsar today scuppered hopes of Oxford’s vaccine — one of the front-runners in the world’s race against time for a jab — being ready for September.
Oxford scientists have already said they are ’80 per cent’ confident they can have their jab available for the autumn.
Kate Bingham, chair of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, revealed she was still ‘hopeful’ it would be ready by the end of 2020 but admitted that academics are unlikely to get enough data to prove it works until the end of the year.
Results of the first wave of trials of the Oxford jab — called AZD1222 — are set to be published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet today. But the results will not prove it can save lives, meaning it won’t be licensed and rolled-out yet.
Synairgen started setting up their clinical trial in February and March to ensure a drug was ready by the time coronavirus became a problem in the UK.
But others haven’t been so lucky, with a former long-suffering investor selling their fund holdings last month for less than £10m, a quarter of their value today.
Neil Woodford, who was known for taking bets and investing on early-stage medical stocks, was one of the biggest investors in Synairgen through his equity income fund.
The next stage for Synairgen is gaining the approval of worldwide medical regulators so the treatment can be brought to market.
Independent experts previously said Synairgen’s trial would ‘represent by far the biggest breakthrough in Covid-19 treatment to date’ if the results are verified.
The only drug scientifically proven to treat the disease at present is a £5 steroid known as dexamethasone, which slashes death rates by up to a third.
Southampton-based Synairgen is a publicly traded firm, meaning it was obligated to release the preliminary results due to stock market rules.
The trial involved 101 Covid-19 patients who had been admitted at nine UK hospitals and required oxygen support. Half of the recruits were given the drug, while the rest took a placebo.
The trial was carried out on a double blind basis, meaning neither the researchers nor the 101 patients knew who was receiving SNG001.
Three people died after being randomly assigned the placebo, while there were no deaths among those who received the drug, Synairgen said.
Studies have shown key high risk groups for Covid-19, including older people and those with some chronic diseases have lower levels of interferon beta.
Separate trials in asthmatic patients have shown SNG001 is well-tolerated, boosts the lungs anti-viral defences and helps lung function during cold or flu infection.
The inhaler turns SNG001 into a fine mist so it can be inhaled deep into the lungs, with the hope it will trigger a stronger, more targeted anti-viral response.
Interferon beta is already used as an injection to boost the immune response of people with multiple sclerosis.
The trial’s chief investigator, Tom Wilkinson, professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Southampton, said if the results are replicated in larger studies it will be ‘a game changer’.
He added: ‘The results confirm our belief that interferon beta, a widely known drug that, by injection, has been approved for use in a number of other indications, has huge potential as an inhaled drug to be able to restore the lungs’ immune response, enhancing protection, accelerating recovery and countering the impact of Sars-CoV-2 virus.’
Stephen Holgate CBE, professor of immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, said recognising that the coronavirus ‘is known to have evolved to evade the initial anti-viral response of the lung’ was a valuable insight.
‘Our treatment of giving high local concentrations of interferon beta, a naturally occurring antiviral protein, restores the lungs ability to neutralise the virus,’ added Professor Holgate, who is also the co-founder of Synairgen.
He said it would work on ‘any mutation of the virus or co-infection with another respiratory virus such as RSV or influenza, as could be encountered in the winter if there is a resurgence of Covid-19’.
Reacting to the findings, Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, tweeted: ‘Preliminary results from a clinical trial suggest interferon beta reduces the risk of developing severe #COVID19 disease by 79 per cent.
‘If confirmed, this would represent by far the biggest breakthrough in #COVID19 treatment to date.’
Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, added: ‘The results seem very impressive, and although accepted that the trial is small with just over 100 participants, a 79 per cent reduction in disease severity could be a game changer.
‘It would be good to see the full results once presented and peer-reviewed to make sure they are robust and the trial conduct was rigorous.
‘Also, with small numbers comes less certainty on the true level of benefit, or whether benefits vary between people with differing risk characteristics. Such work would require a larger trial but, even so, these results are very exciting.’
But Professor Steve Goodacre, an expert in emergency medicine at the University of Sheffield, said: ‘These results are not interpretable.
‘We need the full details and, perhaps more importantly, the trial protocol. The trial should have been registered and a protocol made available before any analysis was undertaken.’
Synairgen will now have to present its findings to medical regulators around the world before it is approved.
Health chiefs will review the findings and decide whether to approve the treatment so doctors can treat Covid-19 patients with it.
The firm’s chief executive Richard Marsden told the BBC it would be able to deliver a ‘few hundred thousands’ of doses each month by the winter.
Because the study was quite small — only involving 100 patients — the trial may have to be scaled up before getting approval.
This process could take months, although governments around the world might be open to fast-tracking the drug if they are impressed by the findings.
British ministers have approved the Ebola drug remdesivir for emergency use on patients suffering life-threatening symptoms of Covid — despite evidence about its effectiveness still being mixed.
Only one drug, the £5 steroid dexamethasone, has so far been conclusively proven to treat coronavirus.
The Recovery trial found it reduced the risk of death by 35 per cent for patients on ventilators — the most dangerously ill — and by a fifth for all patients needing oxygen at any point.
WHAT ARE THE MOST PROMISING COVID-19 DRUGS AND TREATMENTS?
SNG001 uses a protein called interferon beta, which our bodies produce during a viral infection.
It is inhaled directly into the lungs using an inhaler, with the hope it will trigger a stronger, more targeted anti-viral response.
The drug was developed by Southampton-based pharmaceutical firm Synairgen and trialled by researchers from the city’s university.
Preliminary results from a trial of more than 100 hospitalised Covid-19 patients found it prevented 79 per cent of people from needing intensive care.
The treatment also slashed the average time patients spent in hospital by a third, down from an average of nine days to just six.
The £5 steroid is the only drug scientifically proven to treat Covid-19.
It is a type of anti-inflammatory medicine given as either an injection or once-a-day tablet.
Oxford University scientists found it saved the lives of up to 35 per cent of patients relying on ventilators – the most dangerously ill – and reduced the odds of death by a fifth for all patients needing oxygen at any point.
The results came from the RECOVERY trial – the world’s largest investigation of promising Covid-19 therapies.
Researchers say the steroid prevents the release of substances in the body that cause inflammation, a nasty Covid-19 complication that makes breathing difficult. In seriously unwell patients, the lungs become so inflamed they struggle to work.
Remdesivir was developed by Gilead Sciences to treat Ebola.
Trials produced encouraging results earlier this year when it showed promise for both preventing and treating MERS – another coronavirus – in macaque monkeys.
Studies on humans have produced mixed results.
In a US government-led study, remdesivir shortened recovery time by 31 per cent — 11 days on average versus 15 days for those given just usual care.
But it had not improved survival according to preliminary results after two weeks of followup. Results after four weeks are expected soon.
The drug appears to help stop the replication of viruses like coronavirus and Ebola alike.
It’s not entirely clear how the drug accomplishes this feat, but it seems to stop the genetic material of the virus, RNA, from being able to copy itself.
That, in turn, stops the virus from being able to proliferate further inside the patient’s body.
It has been approved for emergency use in the UK, despite its mixed results.
The anti-malaria drug was first touted as a ‘game changer’ by US President Donald Trump in April.
It works in the treatment of malaria by blocking the virus from replicating.
It also has anti-inflammatory properties which stop the immune system from going into hyper-drive and attacking healthy cells.
Trump said there were ‘very strong signs’ hydroxychloroquine could treat the viral disease based on limited anecdotal reports from US doctors and poor studies.
But last month, Oxford University’s RECOVERY trial stopped enrolling participants to its hydroxychloroquine arm after concluding that it showed no clinical benefit.
A quarter of NHS patients given hydroxychloroquine died from Covid-19, compared to 23.5 per cent who were not prescribed the drug.
The scientists running the trial said the results were ‘pretty compelling’, adding: ‘This isn’t a treatment that works.’
President Trump has also admitted to taking the drug as a preventative therapy, to stop him from getting infected from the disease in the first place. Trials are currently ongoing to see if the tablets can work in this way.