RI-MUHC Annual Report

BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITIES

REPURPOSING AN EXISTING DRUG TO TREAT COVID-19

Dr. Elena Netchiporouk embarked on a clinical trial testing the efficacy of omalizumab to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients
Dr. Elena Netchiporouk embarked on a clinical trial testing the efficacy of omalizumab to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients

Acute respiratory distress syndrome is the leading cause of death among COVID-19 patients. However, standardized therapies to alleviate respiratory distress in COVID-19 patients are lacking. To address this urgent need, Dr. Elena Netchiporouk, a researcher in the Infectious Diseases and Immunity in Global Health Program at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI‑MUHC), has spearheaded an innovative study to establish whether an existing drug can be repurposed to treat COVID-19 patients.

As a clinician-scientist in the Dermatology Division of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), Dr. Netchiporouk leveraged her knowledge of autoimmune diseases affecting the skin and speculated that one such treatment may be the key to successfully treating COVID-19 patients experiencing respiratory distress. To this end, she and her multidisciplinary team embarked on a clinical trial to test whether omalizumab, a drug approved to treat patients with severe asthma, represents a more effective way to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients than the current standard of care.

Dr. Netchiporouk worked in close collaboration with the RI‑MUHC Business Development Office to secure financing for this innovative clinical trial. This collaborative venture has led to the acquisition of research funding from the Government of Quebec’s Ministère de l’Économie et de l’Innovation and the MUHC Foundation. Ultimately, this funding will permit the evolution of this potentially groundbreaking idea into a clinical reality.

DIGITAL THERAPY FOR EYESIGHT RESTORATION

Imagine a childhood disadvantaged by vision loss in one eye, where the standard treatment means wearing an eyepatch over your good eye in hopes of strengthening your weak eye. This is the reality for three to four per cent of the population who suffer from amblyopia, or lazy eye. Although the eyepatch shows some promise if used in childhood, it is a disorienting treatment riddled with adherence challenges and it has proven to be ineffective in adults.

Seeking to unravel the brain circuitry underlying amblyopia, Robert Hess, PhD, of the Brain Repair and Integrative Neuroscience (BRaIN) Program at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), has proposed a paradigm-shifting idea. “Perhaps vision loss is not driving the disease,” says the senior scientist, “but rather is the consequence of both eyes not properly working together.”

Encouraging “eye teamwork” results in superior visual improvements

Robert Hess, PhD, and research trainees test an android tablet developed by Ubisoft for therapeutic video games
Robert Hess, PhD, and research trainees test an android tablet developed by Ubisoft for therapeutic video games

Robert Hess’s research has established that encouraging “eye teamwork” results in superior visual improvements, with bigger real-world advantages, than just focussing on the weak eye. To put these findings to work, he and his McGill and BRaIN Program colleagues, Alex Baldwin, PhD, and Alexandre Reynaud, PhD, licensed their patent-protected work to a start-up company called Amblyotech, with the goal of developing a video game that could treat lazy eye in children and adults. As reported in 2018, this collaboration produced a version of the game Tetris that requires both eyes to work together. In the game, falling blocks are visible only to the weak eye, while spaces upon which the blocks land are visible only to the good eye.

In 2020 Novartis acquired Amblyotech, the first digital therapy in this pharmaceutical giant’s extensive therapeutic portfolio. Like traditional pharmacotherapies, digital therapies require rigorous clinical and regulatory testing. To facilitate the translation of this technology into a first-of-its-kind treatment for amblyopia patients, the RI‑MUHC Business Development and Contracts offices initiated discussions and negotiated research contracts, cultivating a successful collaborative relationship between Novartis and the RI-MUHC researchers.

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