COVID 19 study: The inhalation of messenger substances to avoid severe lung damage

When looking for drugs to treat COVID-19, it’s also worth looking at the existing arsenal of active substances. Lung researchers from Giessen are currently testing one such active ingredient against severe cases of COVID-19; in previous studies, this substance prevented tissue damage in the lungs. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is funding the current study with around 1.84 million euros.

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Can the inhalation of a small protein alleviate the course of the disease in COVID-19 patients? This is what the team of Giessen-based lung researcher Prof. Dr. Susanne Herold, Professorship for Infectious Diseases of the Lungs at the Justus Liebig University Giessen (JLU), is researching in a clinical study. This small protein, a messenger substance, is already known to be able to prevent damage to the lung tissue: It plays an important role in the defense against bacteria and viruses in the lungs. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is funding the GI-COVID study as part of a “Rapid Response” module of the “Guideline for the Funding of a National Research Network for Zoonotic Infectious Diseases” with around 1.84 million euros until the end of 2021.

Schematic representation of the messenger GM-CSF: The small protein is the natural model of the potential active substance against COVID-19. graphic: Protein Data Bank

When looking for drugs against new pathogens such as the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, it makes sense to identify promising candidates from the existing arsenal of active ingredients and to investigate their potential to treat COVID-19. “Our starting point is a natural messenger substance that influences the formation and activation of certain immune cells and at the same time accelerates the repair of the damaged lungs,” explains Herold, who heads the Infectious Diseases Department at the Giessen and Marburg University Hospital (UKGM) at the Giessen site. “We know from preclinical studies that this neurotransmitter plays an important role in the defense against pathogens in the lungs and can prevent tissue damage.” Herold and her Giessen research team want to examine now whether the inhalation of the drug molgramostim – a genetically engineered form of the messenger – prevents the worsening of pneumonia in COVID-19 patients and prevents acute lung failure.

“We hope that this active ingredient improves the immune system of the lungs, which  accelerates the ability of the lung tissue to regenerate, and thus prevents the need for artificial ventilation,” says Herold. A preparation similar to molgramostim has been approved in the USA for the treatment of immunocompromised patients. The first trials in people with severe lung infections have already yielded promising results, said Herold. 

“The development of drugs against COVID-19 is of immense importance – especially since there is no vaccine yet,” says JLU President Prof. Dr. Joybrato Mukherjee. “I am very pleased that the excellent Giessen scientists are making an important contribution here.” From the beginning of March, applications for research projects could be submitted to the BMBF that contribute to the understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its spread, or therapeutic and develop diagnostic approaches against COVID-19. Among other projects, the JLU researchers are also involved in the development of a vaccine against the new coronavirus.

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