A blood cancer drug may help improve the conditions of severely ill coronavirus patients, a new small study suggests.
Acalabrutinib, sold under the brandname Calquence by AstraZeneca, is a medication with anti-inflammatory properties that scientists believe can control the immune system’s overreaction to the virus.
The majority of patients given the drugs came off supplemental oxygen or ventilators and were able to be discharged from the hospital.
Researchers from the Center for Cancer Research at the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, found that only two patients died over the course of their study.
With no treatments approved – aside from emergency use authorization – specifically for the virus, there is a pressing need to test both existing medicines and experimental therapies to stop the disease, which has killed more than 110,000 Americans, in its tracks.
Researchers gave 19 hospitalized coronavirus patients either on supplemental oxygen or ventilators doses of acalabrutinib (pictured), a drug used to treat blood cancers
Eight of the 11 patients in the supplemental oxygen group came off of oxygen and were able to be discharged while four of eight in the ventilator group came off and two were discharged. Pictured: nurse uses hand sanitizer before entering the room of a coronavirus patient in the ICU at Regional Medical Center in San Jose, California, May 21
Acalabrutinib belongs to a class of drugs called Bruton tyrosine kinase (BTK) inhibitors that could help mitigate a dangerous overreaction to the virus by the body’s immune system called a cytokine storm.
These so-called storms occur when the body doesn’t just fight off the virus but also attacks its own cells and tissues.
In cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, cytokine storms can trigger respiratory distress, which can lead to multi-system organ failure and death.
‘While BTK inhibitors are approved to treat certain cancers, they are not approved as a treatment for COVID-19,’ a statement reads.
‘This strategy must be tested in a randomized, controlled clinical trial in order to understand the best and safest treatment options for patients with severe COVID-19.
Currently, tocilizumab is not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for use in coronavirus patients.
For the study, published in Science Immunology, the team looked at 19 patients with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis that need to be hospitalized.
All the patients, whom had low blood-oxygen levels and evidence of inflammation, were given the drug; none were given a placebo.
Of the 19 patients, 11 of them had been receiving supplemental oxygen for about two days and eight had been on ventilators for about 1.5 days.
One to three days after being given acalabrutinib, most of the patients in the supplemental oxygen group had better breathing and decreased ifnlammation.
Eight of the 11 were able to be taken off oxygen and were discharged from the hospital after 14 days.
The benefits of acalabrutinib were less evident in patients on ventilators, but four of the eight patients were able to come off the ventilator and two were eventually discharged.
However, the team notes the ventilator group had been on much more severe issues such as major organ dysfunction. In fact, two patients in this group died.
Blood samples also showed levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a major cytokine linked to hyperinflammation in severe COVID-19 patients, fell after acalabrutinib treatment.
They compared this to samples from patients with severe COVID-19 who weren’t treated with the drug, and found they had higher levels of the BTK protein and IL-6.
‘These findings suggest that acalabrutinib may have been effective because its target, BTK, is hyperactive in severe COVID-19 immune cells,’ they wrote.