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Meet the TopDutch researchers in the race to fight coronavirus

We’re living in unprecedented times. In the fight against coronavirus, the process of developing effective medicines, that normally takes years, must be super-charged. In the TopDutch region, a team of researchers and members of the biomedical industry are working together to solve the most pressing challenge facing the world today.

Prof. dr. Erik Frijlink. Image: University of Groningen

For several years, researchers from the University of Groningen - Erik Frijlink, Paul Hagedoorn and their team- have been building a strong relationship with the TopDutch Life Science company PureIMS. Through close collaboration, they researched, patented, developed and marketed a revolutionary inhaler to administer powdered medicine: the Cyclops. But over the past two weeks, they’ve been putting this strong relationship and short lines to the test, as they attempt to play their part in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

No time to waste

Only less than two weeks ago, Hagedoorn and Frijlink read about a study which showed the malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine having a positive effect in treating COVID-19. Naturally, further studies into this drug have to take place before it can be used to treat patients on a large scale. And it may not be effective at all. ‘Remember, in general, of the three thousand drugs that get developed, only one makes it’, Frijlink told the Dutch newspaper Dagblad van het Noorden. But in the meantime, the Cyclops team have been working around the clock to find the most efficient way to administer it.

After successfully developing the Cyclops inhaler to administer drugs for diseases such as Parkinson’s and TB, Frijlink, Hagedoorn and the team at PureIMS saw the potential to use it for the treatment of COVID-19. ‘You deliver the medicines directly to the target area,’ explained Hagedoorn to the UKrant newspaper. 'The lungs.'

In order to administer the drugs to the lungs, the particles have to be miniscule. Think of splitting one single grain of sugar into 25 million pieces. The scientific process of making these minuscule particles of medicine normally takes the Cyclops team around a year to perfect. But, yesterday, they finally managed to achieve it with chloroquine after just a week. An incredible feat.

The Cyclops

Limiting the strain

The premise Frijlink and Hagedoorn are working on is that this treatment can be used on healthcare workers, in order to prevent them contracting the virus whilst working with infected patients. If this is successful, the benefits would be enormous, as a major challenge in the COVID-19 pandemic is that the medical staff are becoming infected, and thus are unable to work, meaning there’s an even greater strain on the healthcare system. For the flu, for example, this is solved with a vaccine that is given to healthcare workers and vulnerable citizens. However, the vaccine for this new coronavirus is expected to take at least a year to develop.

The PureIMS lab

So, what’s next? The Medical Ethics Review Board in Groningen are also working day and night to fast-track the paperwork that will allow the product to be tested in, hopefully, less than four weeks. The tests will first be completed on healthy participants, to ensure the medicine will be safe for our lungs. And after that, the products can be used on patients or, as a preventative, on healthcare workers within months. ‘The open contact we have with researchers, doctors and other companies in the region is invaluable’, says Reinier Schwietert, the Managing Director of PureIMS. And now it’s time to levy it.

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