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New study uses the lessons of COVID-19 to help develop new treatments for severe viral infections

Published: 5 September 2022

Researchers in Southampton are using the knowledge and experience gained treating people with COVID-19 in hospital to help improve ways to prevent and treat respiratory infections.

UNIVERSAL is an observational study that aims to better understand how and when patients with different respiratory viruses may progress to more serious disease and help develop effective antiviral treatments to combat these infections.

The study is being led by Tom Wilkinson, Professor of Respiratory Medicine at the University of Southampton and NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, alongside the team at the NIHR Southampton Clinical Trials Unit and is being sponsored by University Hospital Southampton.

“As seen over the course of the pandemic, individual response to respiratory virus infection is variable from patient to patient,” says Professor Wilkinson. “This can range from mild, self-limiting symptoms to severe infection requiring hospital care.  There is a real need to better understand this patient journey and to understand what drives these differences. This will enable the development of new, more effective therapeutics for respiratory viral illness beyond COVID.”


Professor Tom Wilkinson
Professor Tom Wilkinson

Patients who are admitted to hospital with various respiratory infections will have blood and swab samples taken which will be analysed for certain biomarkers that indicate immune and inflammatory responses in the body. Patients will also be assessed by medical teams and asked to fill in questionnaires to monitor their symptoms and any progression of the infection.

The hope is that by combining all this information, researchers will gain a better understanding of which viruses are affecting the population and be able to identify those patients who may become more seriously ill, as well as better predicting their recovery and length of stay in hospital.

Charlie Roberts, Trial Manager at the Southampton Clinical Trials Unit, says: “The majority of winter pressures facing our NHS are a result of acute respiratory viral infection. Whilst many patients recover without need for hospitalisation, a small proportion go on to develop severe disease. Through the UNIVERSAL study we aim to gain a better understanding of the ways in which different patients respond to and recover from these infections in order to improve clinical management, identify new treatments for those at risk of more severe disease, and help to ease the pressures on our NHS at the busiest times of the year.”

UNIVERSAL is being supported by Southampton-based respiratory company Synairgen, which is investigating an inhaled antiviral as a potential treatment for hospitalised patients with COVID-19, and more widely in patients with severe viral lung infections. Synairgen is providing already owned viral testing equipment and nursing staff at the Southampton clinical trial site.

Richard Marsden, CEO of Synairgen, says: “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the important link between research and clinical care and its impact on the timely development of much-needed antivirals for severe lung viral infections caused by seasonal viruses and emerging respiratory viral threats. Our collaboration on the UNIVERSAL study will help provide a better understanding of what could predict clinical outcomes in patients hospitalised with respiratory symptoms due to infection with a range of respiratory viruses. The UNIVERSAL trial will help to further inform the development programme of SNG001, our investigational broad-spectrum antiviral.”

University Hospital Southampton was the first hospital to open the study last week and has already recruited the first patient. Overall, the study is aiming to recruit 1,000 patients who test positive for a viral respiratory infection at up to 10 hospital sites around the UK.

UNIVERSAL is being funded by Janssen with support from Synairgen.

Notes for editors

UNIVERSAL - Understanding Infection, Viral Exacerbation and Respiratory Symptoms at Admission- Longitudinal (UNIVERSAL) Study. For more information, please visit the UNIVERSAL page on the SCTU website.

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The Southampton Clinical Trials Unit (SCTU) is a National institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) supported and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) core-funded CTU with expertise in the design, conduct and analysis of interventional, multi-centre clinical trials. The CTU is based within the University of Southampton with offices at the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust Southampton General Hospital site. For more information, visit the SCTU website.

University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust is one of the largest acute teaching trusts in England with a turnover of more than £1 billion in 2020/21. UHS provides hospital services for 1.9 million people living in southern Hampshire and specialist services – including neurosciences, respiratory medicine, cancer, cardiovascular, obstetrics and specialist children’s services – to more than 3.7 million people in central southern England and the Channel Islands. UHS is consistently one of the UK's highest recruiting trusts of patients to clinical trials and in the top ten nationally for research study volume as ranked by the NIHR Clinical Research Network. In partnership with the University of Southampton, UHS has £27 million of NIHR infrastructure dedicated to bringing the latest treatments to patients. Visit the UHSFT website.

Synairgen is a UK-based respiratory company focused on drug discovery, development and commercialisation. The Company’s primary focus is developing SNG001 (inhaled interferon beta) for the treatment of severe viral lung infections, including COVID-19, as potentially the first host-targeted, broad-spectrum antiviral treatment delivered directly into the lungs. SNG001 has been granted Fast Track status from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Founded by University of Southampton Professors Sir Stephen Holgate, Donna Davies and Ratko Djukanovic in 2003, Synairgen is quoted on AIM (LSE: SNG). For more information, please visit the Synairgen website.

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