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21 Feb 2024

Major funding unlocks research pathways for innovative antiviral treatment against influenza

The University of Melbourne at the Doherty Institute has secured $3.1 million of funding from the Novo Nordisk Foundation to develop a novel antiviral drug to counter influenza. This could be a game changer particularly during pandemics.

University of Melbourne’s Professor Kanta Subbarao, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza (WHO CCRI) at the Doherty Institute, will head a team that brings together Doherty Institute scientists and medicinal chemists from the Australian biotech company Aus Bio Ltd, the originators of the anti-influenza drug candidate.

The team will aim to complete the preclinical development of the lead candidate as a long-acting pan-influenza antiviral drug for both prevention and treatment of influenza, with a focus on countering influenza strains with pandemic potential.

The competitive grant is part of the Pandemic Antiviral Discovery (PAD) initiative, a global philanthropic collaboration between the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Open Philanthropy, which aims to catalyse the discovery and early development of antiviral medicines in preparation for future pandemics.

Professor Subbarao said in the event of an influenza pandemic, safeguarding vulnerable populations is vital while awaiting the production and distribution of vaccines tailored to the newly emerging pandemic virus.

“The antiviral drug that we are developing has been designed and synthesised using a radically different approach to conventional influenza antiviral drug design. This drug candidate modifies a part of the influenza virus, specifically the cell-attachment protein, to prevent the virus from entering and infecting cells. This stands in contrast to commercially available antivirals, which only work once a person is already infected,” said Professor Subbarao.

Many countries stockpile antiviral medications. However, the rapid exhaustion of these stockpiles in the early stages of a pandemic is a significant issue, particularly for drugs that require daily dosing over an extended period.

Research conducted by University of Melbourne scientists, led by Professor Lorena Brown, a virologist at the Doherty Institute, in close collaboration with Aus Bio scientists, underpins this study. The findings demonstrated that the lead drug candidate was effective in protecting animals from fatal influenza for up to 40 days with just one intranasal dose and that it showed prompt efficacy in treating animals after infection.

“These qualities position it as an excellent option for use during pandemics, in addition to use against seasonal influenza,” said Professor Subbarao.

Thanks to the major funding obtained through the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s PAD – Antivirals for Pandemic Influenza grant, Professor Subbarao and her team will move to validate the efficacy of this unique antiviral drug in preparation for seeking regulatory approval for human testing.

University of Melbourne Laureate Professor Sharon Lewin, Director of the Doherty Institute, congratulated the team and described the accomplishment as another opportunity to contribute to researching and preventing influenza.

“Congratulations to Professor Subbarao and her team at the University of Melbourne, along with the Aus Bio scientists, for this well-deserved outcome. In the continuing battle against ever-evolving influenza threats, targeting viral entry is a most welcome development that has the potential to improve health outcomes for the populations we serve,” said Professor Lewin.

“An effective pandemic response requires both vaccines and therapeutics. The team leading this groundbreaking research will work closely with members of the Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics (CGCPT) and leverage some of the new capabilities that the CGCPT will bring. The work has the potential to transform the management of future influenza pandemics and save lives.”

Mr Robert Thomas AO, Chairman of Aus Bio Ltd, also congratulated Professor Subbarao and the combined efforts of her team in successfully securing this highly competitive grant.

“Notwithstanding Aus Bio’s remarkable antiviral influenza dataset achieved over many years, the success of this grant application would not have been possible without the vital involvement, leadership and international reputations of Professors Kanta Subbarao, Lorena Brown and Ian Barr and the documented commitment of the Doherty Institute and the University of Melbourne to support this important pan influenza antiviral initiative,” said Mr Thomas.

The research group led by Professor Subbarao will comprise Professor Ian Barr, Deputy Director of the WHO CCRI and Dr Saira Hussain, Head of Antiviral Drug Sensitivity at the WHO CCRI; University of Melbourne virologists Professor Lorena Brown and Mr Charley Mackenzie-Kludas; and colleagues from Aus Bio, Dr Peter Jenkins, Dr Weng Yang Wu, Dr Paul Jones and Ms Betty Jin.