Scientists at the University of Bath are in the final stages of checking the quality and sterility of endoscopic devices intended for use in Covid-19 patients, as part of a major project aimed at finding effective treatments for the lung-damage caused by coronavirus.

Researchers at the University’s Centre for Photonics and Photonic Materials have built 300 optical fibre-based endoscopic devices, and the pallet is now ready to be shipped for sterilisation. Throughout lockdown, the team has taken turns to visit the campus lab to refine their building methods and protocols. They are part way through building devices to fill a second pallet. It is hoped that the devices will be ready for use in clinical studies in August.

Before this can happen, however, both the devices and the packaging they will be sealed in must be put through a rigorous battery of tests to check their quality. These tests are being run across three countries – the UK, Belgium and the USA. They will reveal whether a device is sterile when it arrives at its destination, and whether it is sufficiently robust to be introduced into a patient’s body.

“We will be accelerating the ageing of a number of these devices by heating them up to 55°C for 91 days,” explained Dr Jim Stone, research fellow at Bath’s Department of Physics and a member of the photonics team. “This will tell us how well a device would age over two years under normal circumstances.”

The project – STOPCOVID – is being led by 150 scientists at the University of Edinburgh. Its mission is to find treatments that will reduce the symptoms of Covid-19 before a vaccine becomes widely available. The researchers will be testing medicines that are already in circulation, originally developed for unrelated conditions.

The team in Scotland hopes to use Bath’s endoscopic devices to access hard-to-reach areas of the lungs. They will take fluid samples and deliver experimental treatments where they are needed through tiny optical fibres. Microscopic pictures will also be transmitted through the fibres, providing researchers with real-time images from deep within the lungs.

Dr Stone said: “We are developing this technology for the STOPCOVID project but we are starting to think this is quite an interesting way of testing new drugs and their different effects. Beyond Covid-19, this could open up a neat new tool to deepen our understanding of disease in general.”

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has agreed to work closely with the team to fast-track any potentially successful work while following due diligence. Any drugs that provide positive early results will be rolled out as part of national and international clinical trials through UK Trials Platform. This approach could have a beneficial impact on millions of people who are affected worldwide, experts say. It could be a significant boost for low and middle income countries, where people do not have access to intensive care and ventilation facilities.

Dr Stone said: “The Bath contribution to the project is moving forward well. The process of delivering safe, sterile devices is slow but quality assurance must be done. So far, our devices and the packaging have given us no cause for concern.”