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VCU begins clinical trial to test auto-inflammatory drug against COVID-19

Updated: May. 9, 2020 at 5:29 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - VCU is one of the first sites in the world to start clinical trials to study the safety and efficiency of a drug that suppresses a severe immune overreaction to fight COVID-19.

The drug, canakinumab, will be tested on patients who experience a type of severe immune overreaction called cytokine release syndrome, which occurs in some patients with pneumonia due to coronavirus.

“Canakinumab works to neutralize a protein, Interleukin-1β, in the body in order to suppress deregulated inflammation,” VCU Health said.

The drug is FDA approved to treat a series of rare auto-inflammatory diseases and a type of juvenile arthritis.

“Interleukin-1β is an important cytokine that mediates fever and causes a cascade of inflammation in the body and is considered to be one of the key mediators in inflammatory response,” said Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., the study’s principal investigator and a cardiologist at VCU Health.

The study started on April 29 and potential participants are being screened to enroll. The drug’s manufacturer and trial sponsor, Novartis, hopes to add more testing centers in the coming weeks and expand enrollment to 450 people.

“Because of our familiarity with the drug and because we were intimately involved with VCU’s COVID-19 response, all the stars aligned and we were able to get this trial up and running really quickly,” said Benjamin Van Tassell, Pharm.D., a professor in VCU’s School of Pharmacy and a co-investigator on the study.

While VCU and other hospitals around the world work to combat COVID-19 from various angles, Abbate and Van Tassell are interested in impeding the symptoms’ progression from moderate to severe to fatal. Van Tassell said the inflammation may be what is actually fatal.

“It can kind of snowball on itself,” he said. “A little bit of inflammation can trigger more inflammation, which triggers more and more. And that seems to be the most dangerous part of a COVID-19 infection: when you enter into this hyper-inflammatory state.”

For more information on the clinical trial, click here.

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