RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Scientists are already thinking about treatments for future pandemics. Researchers at UNC School of Medicine suggest re-purposing current treatments instead of starting from scratch.
“Even after infection, there’s no treatment approved by FDA yet. So, vaccination is for prevention but the treatment for COVID-19 is still needed,” said Dr. Pengda Liu, an assistant professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the UNC School of Medicine.
When this pandemic began, Liu and his team stepped up to find a solution. Working in the cancer field, his team considered the possibility of re-purposing a cancer treatment drug for COVID-19.
“This is something that we’re good at and that we can try,” Liu said.
Lenalidomide, sold as Revlimid in a pill form, is used for blood cancer treatments. Liu studied the drug and its effectiveness for COVID-19 treatments by using a fake SARS-CoV-2 virus. Because the lab doesn’t have a high enough biosecurity clearance, the team had to use the pseudo virus. While its appearance and function are the same as a coronavirus on the outside, the inside is harmless, inactive virus.
Researchers found the medication was able to block the pseudo SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from entering the cell. It also reduced illness by up to 40-percent in lab tests.
Liu hopes it can someday be used as a standalone treatment or in combination with others.
“In a limited time frame, the best way to develop a new treatment is to re-purpose an existing FDA approved drug”
It’s not a new idea. The currently available therapy, Remdesivir, was initially developed for Ebola.
Even if the FDA doesn’t approve lenalidomide for SARS-CoV-2, Liu hopes it can at least lay the foundation for treatments in case of a future pandemic caused by the virus.
“As a human being, everyone wants to contribute to this and they’re trying to get this over as soon as possible — for our generation and for other generations,” he said.
Animals and human testing are still needed before this can be used in the real world. Liu estimated it could take up to six years for this treatment to get full approval.
Re-purposing Ebola treatments
Collaborations Pharmaceuticals’ lab on North Carolina State University’s campus also tested if there were any antivirals already developed to help COVID-19 patients.
Like Liu’s lab, they didn’t have the right biohazard clearance to test on coronavirus cells either. So, Collaborations Pharmaceuticals teamed up with dozens of labs to help do the work. Researchers from N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill, and as far as Brazil are credited with helping in this testing.
They found three antivirals — tilorone, quinacrine, and pyronaridine — used for Ebola and Marburg virus could potentially be repurposed, too.
The discovery is just at the beginning stages. Animal testing and human trials are still needed before real-world use.
Collaborations Pharmaceuticals hopes to get the treatments into a pill form in order to reach people who have a hard time accessing hospitals with treatments.
The currently available treatments need to be used within 10 days of infection. It’s a tight window, as most people don’t know they’re infected until several days into their contraction. Adding to the challenge, not every health care facility has them available. If you’re at high risk for serious disease, little time can be wasted looking for treatment.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has developed a therapeutics locator map. It shows health care facilities around the country where therapies are available.