DUBLIN – The Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), a public-private research partnership between the European Commission (EC) and Europe’s pharmaceutical industry, has boosted funding for a fast-track response to the COVID-19 pandemic from €45 million (US$48.8 million) to €72 million. In addition to the hard cash, the eight funded projects will receive a further €45 million through in-kind contributions from EFPIA members and their affiliates or through additional cash contributions. The boost in funding was motivated, the IMI said, by the high quality of the project proposals it received. Just eight of the 144 applications it received will obtain support, although the agency said that 120 met the basic eligibility criteria.

Details on the projects remain sketchy for now, because the actual grant agreements have not yet been signed, an IMI spokeswoman told BioWorld by email. “Normally we only communicate about projects after the grant agreement is signed, but we made an exception in this case because of the high levels of interest in the area,” she stated.

The successful projects include five diagnostic projects and three therapeutic development projects. The latter three include initiatives with radically different timelines. Furthest along the development path is a project called Impentri, led by Cambridge, U.K.-based drug repurposing firm Exvastat Ltd., which is developing an intravenous formulation of the leukemia drug imatinib for treating COVID-19-associated acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

Imatinib, the tyrosine kinase inhibitor also known as Gleevec, gained approval in Philadelphia-chromosome-positive chronic myeloid leukemia by inhibiting the oncogenic Bcr-Abl kinase activity that arises from the abnormal chromosomal translocation. Exvastat had already been in pursuit of its potential for treating ARDS – it previously conducted a placebo-controlled phase I challenge study in healthy volunteers exposed to inhaled lipopolysaccharide.

The rationale for using imatinib in ARDS stems from the role of Abl kinases in regulating endothelial barrier function and vascular leak during acute lung injury. Several animal studies and single case reports also support the hypothesis. One preclinical study conducted by researchers at the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, suggested that imatinib works by strengthening endothelial cell-to-cell contacts and promoting endothelial cell adhesion to the extracellular matrix. The IMI funding will underwrite a randomized, double-blind trial of imatinib in COVID-19 patients with lung inflammation.

The French national health and medical research agency Inserm (Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale) is leading a much larger drug development undertaking, Care, which involves 36 partners in all. This initiative will undertake both drug repurposing and de novo drug discovery specific for SARS-CoV-2, with the aim of bringing several programs into the clinic. The Swedish National Veterinary Institute (Statens Veterinaermedicinska Anstalt) is leading the third drug development project, MAD-CoV-2 (Modern Approaches for Developing Antivirals Against SARS-CoV-2), which aims to discover and develop novel antiviral drugs based on the molecular biology of SARS-CoV-2. Nine partners are involved.

On the diagnostics front, two of the five projects are led by U.K. firms. Kimbolton-based BG Research Ltd., the innovation arm of Biogene Ltd., is heading up Krono, which will evaluate a mobile molecular diagnostic point-of-need platform. The system, which delivers a result in 40 minutes, is designed for use in the doctor’s office or in the home. It builds on earlier work BG Research undertook in developing an Ebola virus test platform. Oxford-based Genefirst Ltd., which is already shipping two CE-marked real-time PCR tests for SARS-CoV-2, is heading up Rapid-Covid. It will develop a multi-analyte test for SARS-CoV-2 and 30 more bacterial and viral respiratory pathogens, in order to optimize treatment selection and minimize unnecessary antibiotic use.

GNA Biosolutions GmbH, of Martinsried, Germany, is leading Decision, a project that aims to develop a low-cost, miniaturized and disposable molecular diagnostic system, with a sample-to-result time within minutes. The company has already developed several point-of-care multipathogen diagnostic systems, but it has been looking to take forward a product concept, GNA Nano, that would eliminate the need for complex test instruments.

Liège, Belgium-based med-tech firm Oncoradiomics SA is leading a project called Dragon, which will apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the diagnosis and prognosis of COVID-19 using standard clinical imaging. Universitair Medisch Centrum (UMC) Utrecht, in the Netherlands, leads Covid-Red, which will combine expertise in clinical epidemiology with digital technologies, to enable remote case detection with mobile apps and wearables.

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