New therapies are being studied to treat patients at risk of developing complications from COVID-19. (iStock)

McGill leads trials of drug to treat COVID-19

At the same time as scientists work at breakneck speed to develop vaccines to prevent COVID-19 infection, they are also researching drugs to treat people who have developed the disease. The Research Institute of the McGill University Health centre in Montreal is currently testing such a drug on hospital patients who are at higher risk of developing complications because of their advanced age or underlying conditions.

The drug, LAU-7b, acts on lung inflammation which can be a devastating effect of COVID-19 infection. An oral form of this drug has also been shown to have antiviral effects against the virus in the lab setting. Now, patients in six hospitals in the province of Quebec are eligible to take part in the drug trial and other Canadian and U.S. hospitals will be joining in the next weeks.

Dr. Ramy Saleh, principal investigator of the study, hopes that fenretinide can stop vulnerable patients from suffering respiratory failure and needing mechanical ventilation. (McGill University Health Centre)

Drug tamps down exaggerated inflammatory reaction

This Montreal research centre is world renowned for its biomedical and healthcare research. It is affiliated with McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine and is the research arm of the McGill University Health Centre teaching hospital. It supports over 420 researchers and almost 1,200 research trainees.

In the McGill drug trial, about 240 adult patients with COVID-19 will either get a new oral form of the drug called fenretinide or a placebo.  It acts to tamp down the exaggerated inflammatory reaction that some patients suffer with COVID-19 infection that can lead to life-threatening pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome. 

It is a drug derived from vitamin A that is being tested to treat the exaggerated inflammatory response in cystic fibrosis patients that leads to irreversible lung damage. This response seems similar to the one suffered by patients with severe cases of COVID-19. Some studies have already shown a beneficial response in cystic fibrosis patients.

Drug ‘triggers a natural mechanism’

“Thanks to its inflammation-controlling properties, low-dose fenretinide triggers a natural mechanism – the body’s own resolution of the inflammation process – which keeps the inflammatory response under control without suppressing its protective immune role”, explains Dr. Larry Lands, Director of Pediatric Respiratory Medicine at the Montreal Children’s Hospital of the MUHC and Chief Medical Advisor for Laurent Pharmaceuticals which developed the drug.

Other therapies sought

Other drugs being studied to treat COVID-19 infection include drugs already being used to treat autoimmune diseases, antiviral drugs and antibodies from people who have recovered from COVID-19. For example, Canadian authorities have approved one antibody drug called bamlanivimab from a collaboration between the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company and AbCellera based in the western Canadian city of Vancouver. Studies suggest it can help patients with mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19 but who are at risk for developing severe symptoms or being hospitalized. The government has purchased some of the drug for use in Canada.

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