Northwestern University researchers say they’ve potentially discovered a way to more effectively treat COVID-related pneumonia, a life-threatening condition of the virus.

The peer-reviewed research was published online Monday in the scientific journal Nature. A small, early stage human study, using Northwestern data, is expected to begin within weeks to see if a drug treatment can drastically reduce the impact of pneumonia on those hospitalized with the virus.

It’s unlikely that a treatment will be developed before mass vaccinations should essentially bring the pandemic under control, but doctors expect people will continue to get sick. In fact, the treatment may be critically necessary if a similar virus emerges in the future.

“We will undoubtedly see more of these related coronaviruses,” Scott Budinger, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said in an interview. “I think we will be better prepared.”

Even with vaccines, COVID-19 will continue to sicken people as it’s unlikely that there will ever be 100% inoculation, Budinger said.

In the U.S., there have been nearly 375,000 deaths and more than 22 million cases of infection reported.

Budinger said Northwestern researchers will begin working potentially within the next couple of weeks with an unidentified drug maker for an early stage study, the first of three clinical trials usually needed for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of any treatment. Additionally, Northwestern has made the government-funded research public online so any drug company can explore testing possible therapies.

“I hope that not just here at Northwestern but elsewhere in the country, some pharma company is looking at the data and thinking their drug might also be useful,” Budinger said.

Budinger and his colleagues have been studying pneumonia for about a decade. They pivoted research to COVID-related pneumonia early last year. The scientists studied genetic material in fluid samples taken from patients with severe cases to help understand the virus’ path to pneumonia.

They found that the virus spreads slowly in the lungs, explaining why COVID patients tended to have pneumonia for a much longer period of time —14 days on average in hospital intensive care units, compared with about four days for pneumonia brought on by flu or other types of illness.

“Their sickness just persisted for a long, long time,” Budinger said. “That’s why COVID-19 has been such a strain on our health care system.”

The hope is that by interrupting the virus’ attack of certain white blood cells with a drug, severe pneumonia can be prevented by reducing the illness’ impact to symptoms more commonly seen with flu, Budinger said.

“The best way to fight the pandemic is to get a vaccine that works all the time, and the great news is we seem to have several,” Budginger said, referring to vaccines approved for emergency use or in development. “The second way to combat the disease is to change it from severe to mild.” Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by agrant from The Chicago Community Trust.