July 20 (UPI) -- Interferon beta, originally developed to treat asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, reduces the risk for serious illness and the need for ventilator support in patients hospitalized with COVID-19, according to preliminary findings of a Phase 1 clinical trial released Monday.
The results were reported by the drug's manufacturer, Britain-based Synairgen, as part of an update issued to company shareholders, executives said.
The trial's results have not been published in a medical or scientific journal and have not undergone the peer-review process, which is used to confirm the accuracy and validity of clinical trials, they acknowledged.
As of Monday, only preliminary findings had been made publicly available, the company said.
"The results confirm our belief that interferon beta ... has huge potential as an inhaled drug to be able to restore the lung's immune response, enhancing protection, accelerating recovery and countering the impact of [the new coronavirus]," chief investigator Tom Wilkinson said in a statement.
Wilkinson, a professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Southampton, described the findings to the BBC on Monday as a "game changer."
Other forms of interferon beta, a naturally occurring protein that's involved in the immune response, have been used to treat multiple sclerosis for years -- and administered via injection, according to Synairgen.
However, the company's version of the drug, called SNG001, is delivered directly to the lungs with a nebulizer, a device commonly used by those with asthma and COPD.
Its use is based on the theory that interferon beta deficiency in the lungs explains why some people are more prone to severe lung disease during respiratory viral infections than others, the company said.
In the trial results released Monday, 101 COVID-19 patients at nine specialist hospitals in Britain received either SNG001 or placebo between March 30 and May 27, according to the company.
Those on SNG001 were 79% less likely to develop severe disease and more than twice as likely to recover -- defined as no clinical or virological evidence of infection -- than patients who received the placebo, the researchers said.
None of the patients on the drug died, they said.
In patients with more severe disease who required supplemental oxygen, SNG001 treatment increased the likelihood of hospital discharge by roughly 70%, according to the researchers.
Those on the drug were discharged after an average of approximately six days, compared to nine days for patients on placebo, the researchers said.
In addition, SNG001 significantly reduced severe shortness of breath, one of the main symptoms of COVID-19 among hospitalized patients, Richard Marsden, CEO of Synairgen, said in a statement.
"This assessment of SNG001 in COVID-19 patients could signal a major breakthrough in the treatment of hospitalized COVID-19 patients," Marsden said.
"Our efforts are now focused on working with the regulators and other key groups to progress this potential COVID-19 treatment as rapidly as possible."