Med tech

Houston biotech company is creating a drug that could fight the coronavirus

Pulmotect, a clinical-stage biotechnology company based in Houston, is testing a drug that could be useful in mitigating the threats of the coronavirus, which is currently been recognized as a global health emergency. Getty Images

A drug being developed by a Houston biopharmaceutical company eventually could help combat what the World Health Organization has proclaimed a global health emergency.

Experiments conducted by clinical-stage biotechnology company Pulmotect Inc. show its PUL-042 inhaled drug has proven effective in protecting mice against two types of coronavirus: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Researchers performed those tests at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

In the Galveston experiments, a single inhaled dose of PUL-042 protected lab mice from the SARS virus, and it greatly reduced the amount of virus in their lungs after the mice became infected with SARS or MERS.

"With the risks of virulent coronaviruses and other threats increasing, as shown by the recent outbreak in Wuhan that has already spread from China to other countries including the United States, Pulmotect is optimistic that its immune-stimulating technology could be useful in mitigating the threats of current and emerging pathogens and protecting vulnerable populations," says CEO Dr. Colin Broom in a news release.

The ability of PUL-042 to ward off the newest type of coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, hasn't been tested yet. However, the drug eventually could help prevent the new virus from spreading, says Broom, who joined Pulmotect as CEO last fall. A separate study would be required to evaluate PUL-042 in patients exposed to 2019-nCoV, he says.

"PUL-042 has the potential to prevent and treat respiratory complications in many high-risk patient populations, including those where no effective therapies are currently available, as is the case with the current coronavirus outbreak," Brenton Scott, president and chief operating officer of Pulmotect, says in the release.

Since its discovery in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China, nearly 9,800 people around the world were infected with 2019-nCoV as of January 31, The New York Times reported. Of those people, more than 200 died. On January 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus outbreak a global health emergency.

No specific treatment or cure for 2019-nCoV virus is available. This virus is among seven known coronaviruses.

Symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus include fever, cough, and shortness of breath, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus can cause pneumonia, SARS, kidney failure, or even death, the Virginia Department of Health says.

PUL-042 "would be a great tool to have available for future outbreaks and epidemics, in addition to being used more routinely for more common infections," Broom says.

Fighting coronaviruses is a potential byproduct of PUL-042.

Initially, Pulmotect is focusing development of PUL-042 on the prevention and treatment of respiratory complications suffered by cancer patients with suppressed immune systems. Phase 1 clinical trials already have taken place in the U.S., and Phase 2 clinical trials are scheduled for later this year.

A separate trial of PUL-042 is underway in London. There, the drug is being tested on patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who are prone to lung infections. COPD is an inflammatory disease that blocks airflow from the lungs. People with COPD face a heightened risk of conditions like heart disease and lung cancer, the Mayo Clinic says.

Broom says PUL-042 is a few years away from being considered for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

To date, Pulmotect has raised more than $28 million in outside funding. Founded in 2007, Pulmotect emerged from Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio, which nurtures early stage companies in the life sciences sector.

Patents for PUL-042, invented by MD Anderson Cancer Center and Texas A&M University, have been issued in nine countries.

The new tech hub at Houston Methodist has trained hundreds of physicians in telemedicine practices. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston Methodist's recently opened its new Center for Innovation's Technology Hub in January, and the new wing has already been challenged by a global pandemic — one that's validating a real need for telemedicine.

The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more. The hub was focused on giving tours to medical professionals and executives to get them excited about health tech, but in the middle of March, Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist, says they saw a greater need for the space.

"We turned the technology hub into a training center where physicians could come on site and learn telemedicine," Sol says. "We had some foresight from our leadership who thought that telemedicine was going to be heavily utilized in order to protect our patients who might go into isolation based on the outbreak."

The hub has trained over 500 physicians — both onsite and digitally. Sol says that at the start of March, there were 66 providers offering virtual care, and by March 25, there were over 900 providers operating virtually. On March 12, Houston Methodist had 167 virtual visits, Sol says, and on March 25, they had 2,421. This new 2,000-plus number is now the daily average.

"Telemedicine is here to stay now with the rapid adoption that just happened," Sol says. "The landscape will change tremendously."

Another way new technology has affected doctors' day-to-day work has been through tele-rounding — especially when it comes to interacting with patients with COVID-19.

"We are putting iPads in those rooms with Vidyo as the video application, and our physicians can tele-visit into that room," Sol says.

It's all hands on deck for the tech hub so that physicians who need support have someone to turn to. Sol says the hub used to have a two-person support team and now there are eight people in that role.

Sol says the iPads are a key technology for tele-rounding and patient care — and they are working with Apple directly to secure inventory. But other tech tools, like an artificial intelligence-backed phone system, an online symptom checker, and chatbots are key to engaging with patients.

"We're looking at how we can get our patients in the right place at the right time," Sol says. "It's very confusing right now. We're hoping we can streamline that for our patients."

The hub was designed so that in case of emergency, the display hospital rooms could be transitioned to patient care rooms. Sol says that would be a call made by Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer of Houston Methodist Hospital.