Retroscreen Virology (RVL), the specialist virology contract research organisation based in the UK, is poised to launch its first commercial human viral-challenge study at a new purpose-built facility completed last February at Queen Mary, University of London.

RVL has already conducted an academic study with Duke University of the US at the 1,300sq m facility, which comprises 24 quarantined bedrooms as well as clinical, laboratory, administrative and conference space.

The company is occupying a whole floor of Queen Mary BioEnterprises’ (QMB) Innovation Centre on the university’s Whitechapel campus in East London. It was the first anchor tenant for the Innovation Centre, a £25 million partnership between Queen Mary and the London Development Agency that offers some 3,700sq m of office and laboratory space to high-technology companies in the life sciences sector.

QMB is a wholly owned company of Queen Mary, University of London, while RVL started life as a spin-out from the same institution.

Bespoke space

The new £2 million facility gives Retroscreen bespoke space for its quarantined ‘Flu Camp’ trials of novel antivirals and vaccines, marking the first clinical facility dedicated to human viral challenge studies since the closure of the UK’s Common Cold Institute in the 1990s.

According to Dr Rob Lambkin-Williams, chief scientific officer of Retroscreen Virology Ltd, there is no similar facility anywhere in the world conducting human viral challenge (HVC) studies on this scale. RVL also says it is unique in the range of HVC studies the company offers, spanning influenza, the common cold and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

As Ramsey Richmond, executive manager of the QMB Innovation Centre, noted, the bedrooms at the London facility are fitted with “quasi air-locks” separating them from the research laboratories. Quarantined conditions are further enhanced by a roof-top emergency generator and security systems to segment the facility space.

These capabilities make it easier to isolate patients, improve study efficiency and avoid the risks of existing infections being transferred that complicate HVC studies conducted in hotels or open-ward hospitals. Previously RVL relied on adapting hotel space or student accommodation for its ‘Flu Camp’ trials.

The company now expects to run “at least” 12 quarantines a year across the range of ‘flu, common cold and RSV. Lambkin-Williams is also hoping next year to start conducting rhinovirus challenge studies in asthmatics. Norovirus studies are also in the pipeline, and the Queen Mary facility is set up to accommodate these.

The recent academic study with Duke University involved looking at the impact of ‘flu in cognitive function, addressing the question of whether early intervention with antivirals can improve productivity once people are back at work after their illness.

In addition to the commercial HVC challenge study due to begin shortly at the Queen Mary facility, Retroscreen has four to five commercial trials lined up for next year.

PoC advantage

The company specialises in Phase IIa HVC studies for rapid proof of concept (PoC). According to Lambkin-Williams, it can complete these trials in six months to a year, “whereas trying to do proof of concept with a virus infection in the field is going to take you two or three years”.

Companies will still need to conduct field studies but a successful PoC trial will “really guide” how these studies are designed, he adds.

In the present constrained environment, the possibility of getting a product to market one year earlier “can make a huge difference”, Lambkin-Williams comments.

Nor is this just a financial gain. In Europe alone, there are still 30,000 children dying each year from respiratory syncytial virus, Lambkin-Williams points out.