DRUGS used for a common illness could help prevent Covid, experts have claimed.
Figures show that liver disease is on the rise in the UK, with around 40 people a day dying from the condition, experts at the British Liver Trust say.
In the US, the Liver Foundation says more than a 100million people have some form of the illness, with 1.8 per cent of the population having been diagnosed with liver disease.
When treating the illness, medics often use a drug called ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA).
The team found that this drug can target the host cells of Covid-19 rather than the virus itself, meaning that it might be able to protect people from new variants of the virus, as well as other coronaviruses that could emerge.
The experts said that large trials are needed, but added that if the effectiveness is confirmed, then the treatment could be vital in protecting those who aren’t able to have Covid jabs.
Dr Fotios Sampaziotis, from the Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute at the University of Cambridge and Addenbrooke’s Hospital explained that vaccines help protect us by boosting our immune system.
He added that they work by recognising the virus and clearing or weakening it.
Writing in journal Nature he said: “But vaccines don’t work for everyone – for example patients with a weak immune system – and not everyone have access to them. Also, the virus can mutate to new vaccine-resistant variants.
“We’re interested in finding alternative ways to protect us from SARS-CoV-2 infection that are not dependent on the immune system and could complement vaccination.
“We’ve discovered a way to close the door to the virus, preventing it from getting into our cells in the first place and protecting us from infection.”
The experts looked at mini bile ducts with ‘organoids’.
These are cells that can grow and increase rapidly in numbers.
In this study, the experts realised they could use the same approach but with ‘mini lungs’.
They found that a molecule known as FXR, which is present in large amounts in these bile duct organoids, directly regulates the viral ‘doorway’ ACE2.
In the next step, they tested the drug on hamsters exposed to Covid.
Those treated with it were protected from the Delta variant – which was prevalent at the time of the study.
Later, eight healthy human volunteers received the drug and when they had their noses swabbed, medics found lower levels of ACE2.
This suggest that the virus had less opportunities to break into and infect their nasal cells – which is the main gateway to the virus, they said.
First author and PhD candidate Teresa Brevini from the University of Cambridge said: “Using almost every approach at our fingertips we showed that an existing drug shuts the door on the virus and can protect us from Covid-19.
“Importantly, because this drug works on our cells, it is not affected by mutations in the virus and should be effective even as new variants emerge.”
Dr Sampaziotis added that the tablets cost very little and can be produced in large quantities fast.
He added: “Which makes it easy to rapidly deploy during outbreaks – especially against vaccine-resistant variants, when it might be the only line of protection while waiting for new vaccines to be developed.
“We are optimistic that this drug could become an important weapon in our fight against Covid-19.”
The study comes after experts warned a new variant has taken over and could drive a surge in cases.
The BQ1 Omicron offshoot is now dominant and makes up 50.4 per cent of infections, compared to 39 per cent last week, data previously revealed.
Professor Stephen Powis, medical director at NHS England, warned: “We expect this to be the NHS’s most challenging winter yet.
“As we move towards Christmas we will see increasing levels of flu in the community and increasing numbers of patients needing admission to hospital.
“We are also starting to see increases in the numbers of patients with Covid.
“There is a new variant circulating – BQ1 – which is becoming the dominant variant and it seems likely that is going to drive further increases.
“In some countries in Europe that have it you can already see growth in hospital admissions,” he said.