The Pentagon is putting its financial power behind two COVID-19 clinical trials led by Houston-based biotech company Pulmotect Inc.
The U.S. Department of Defense is pumping as much as $6 million into the pair of Phase 2 trials, which involve a total of 300 U.S. participants, according to a January 27 news release from Pulmotect. When it's inhaled, Pulmotect's drug, PUL-042, stimulates the lungs' immune system to fight bacteria, viruses, or fungi that cause respiratory illnesses.
Pulmotect joins a number of Houston organizations that have tapped into Department of Defense funding for research into COVID-19 therapies.
In January, for instance, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) collected $5.1 million from the department to evaluate whether an investigational oral drug, vadadustat, can help prevent acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) in COVID-19 patients.
"It's wonderful that we have COVID-19 vaccinations available now, but they won't directly help patients who are already sick in the hospital or who will become sick in the future," Dr. Holger Eltzschig, chairman of Department of Anesthesiology at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School, says in a news release.
Also in January, Houston-based clinical research organization Pharm-Olam LLC sealed a $36.3 million deal with the Department of Defense to conduct a clinical trial of an antibody treatment for inflammatory problems associated with COVID-19.
So far, Pulmotect's PUL-042 has shown promise in battling the coronaviruses that trigger MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). The current trials related to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 are evaluating PUL-042's effect on prevention of infections and reducing the severity of the disease.
Pulmotect initially designed PUL-042 to treat and prevent respiratory complications in cancer patients. But once the coronavirus pandemic set in, the company pivoted to testing the effectiveness of its drug in combatting the virus that causes COVID-19. Last May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Pulmotect's COVID-19 trials.
Pulmotect says PUL-042 someday could be a therapy that's deployed during pandemics, epidemics, and bioterrorism attacks.
Invented at Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center and at Texas A&M University, PUL-042 has earned patents in 10 countries. The National Institutes of Health, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, and other organizations have supported R&D for PUL-042.
Founded in 2007, Pulmotect emerged from Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio, which nurtures early stage companies in the life sciences sector. In September 2019, the company brought aboard Dr. Colin Broom as CEO. He previously was CEO of an Irish biopharmaceutical company.
Thus far, Pulmotect has garnered about $18 million in equity and about $20 million in other funding.
Before the pandemic, Pulmotect was evaluating the effectiveness of PUL-042 in treating patients with mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who've been exposed to a respiratory virus.
COPD, which affects 30 million Americans, is the No. 3 cause of death in the U.S., according to the COPD Foundation. Pulmotect says 40 percent of COPD-related costs could be avoided by heading off complications and hospitalizations, which usually result from COPD problems caused by a bacterial or viral infection. In this context, the drug is meant to treat cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy whose weakened immune systems make them susceptible to pneumonia.