Feb 01 2021

Professor Pankaj Sharma, Department of Biological Sciences, is currently playing an instrumental part in the first UK clinical trials of a nasal spray proven to kill 99.9% of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. We recently caught up with Professor Sharma to ask more about the nasal spray and the extent of the trials.

1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your role within the Department of Biological Sciences?

I am an academic, but somewhat unusually at the College have a clinical background. I am a consultant neurologist at Imperial College NHS Healthcare Trust in London where I look after patients with a wide variety of neurological disorders. I was formally head of acute stroke services and my particular interest is young stroke patients (those under the age of 50 years). In addition to this, I divide my time further between being the Director of the Institute of Cardiovascular Research at Royal Holloway and Director of Clinical Education and Research & Development at Ashford and St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey. You would be forgiven for thinking I spend a lot of time in my car!

2. You are playing an instrumental part in the first UK clinical trials of a nasal spray proven to kill 99.9% of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, how did you get involved?

My major research interest is gene hunting. My group tries to find genes for cardiovascular related disorders, especially stroke like illness. However, much of this work has been completely derailed since the coronavirus pandemic started. My clinical neurology work has been stopped and  I, along with many of my clinical colleagues, have been seconded to other parts of the NHS (in my case Intensive Care Unit at Imperial). From last year it became abundantly clear that new interventions acting through multiple different avenues would be needed to tackle this infection. Vaccines will help prevent infections while drugs such as steroids will help patients when they are unwell in hospital but something is needed for the many in the middle where individuals have been exposed to the virus but not yet become symptomatic. The opportunity to begin the first European trials of a nasal spray was not to be missed.

3. How long will the clinical trials take?

The trial is a double-blind randomized control trial assessing the use of a nasal spray treatment to determine its effect on viral load over the course of 7-10 days following exposure to coronavirus. Recruitment is proceeding apace, and we expect to have the initial results in the next 6-8 weeks. If all goes well emergency approval will be sought from the regulatory bodies as soon as possible.

4. How does the nasal spray work?

The patient is asked to mix two liquids together which when combined produce a nano-molecule Nitric Oxide (NO). This is ubiquitous in the human body and involved in many regulatory functions such as vasodilation and immunity. NO has been shown to kill the coronavirus by disrupting its structural integrity. The spray delivers a concentrated amount in the nasal passages where the virus is first present and remains, growing, for about a week before symptoms appear. Patients who test positive on PCR or lateral flow test are asked to regularly use the nasal spray so the virus can be destroyed before it has a chance to infect the rest of the body.

5. What is your favourite thing about working at Royal Holloway, in the Department of Biological Sciences?

Without a doubt my favourite part of Royal Holloway is being involved with my research students, from the undergraduates doing research projects, to Masters’ and our PhD students. Its great when they discover something completely new. I’m particularly pleased to have had one of the first MD degrees awarded by Royal Holloway to one of our students.

6. Outside of work, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I have been playing polo for some time now and (under normal times) play about once or twice per week. My plan is to try to get a formal handicap this year but its looking tight in terms of timescales as the sport has, like everything else, been hit hard in terms of limited fixtures and the horses have not had sufficient exercise. Hopefully, the main summer field season will be long enough to allow me to reach the required standard.