Could a Cancer Drug Curb the Organ Damage of Severe COVID?

COVID patient in hospital
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Key Takeaways

  • An experimental cancer drug could help prevent organ damage associated with COVID-19

  • The drug suppresses immune cells that tend to overreact in response to COVID infection

  • In mice and human tissue, the drug helped prevent damage

MONDAY, July 8, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- An experimental cancer drug might be able to help prevent the organ damage caused by severe COVID infections, a new study finds.

The drug, called eganelisib, inhibits an immune system enzyme called PI3K gamma that boosts damaging inflammation in cancerous tumors.

But lab studies in mice and human tissue showed that eganelisib could also be effective in suppressing organ-damaging inflammation caused by COVID, according to findings published July 3 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

COVID is mainly known as a lung disease, but severe cases are known to damage the heart, gastrointestinal system, kidneys, brain and nervous system. This damage contributes to Long COVID -- a debiltating condition where symptoms that last months and years beyond the initial infection.

The P13K gamma enzyme causes a type of white blood cell called myeloid cells to flood tumor tissue, creating inflammation that worsens cancer, researchers said.

Myeloid cells are meant to work quickly to kill potentially deadly bacteria and viruses, including the coronavirus behind COVID, researchers said.

Unfortunately, they can do a lot of damage if the immune system overreacts to a severe infection, said senior researcher Judith Varner, a professor of pathology and medicine at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

“If you have a little infection, myeloid cells come in, kill bacteria, release alerts that recruit even more potent killer immune cells, and produce substances that can heal the damage,” Varner explained in a UCSD news release.

“But if you get an infection that's too strong, you get overproduction of these alert signals and the substances they release to kill these infective agents can also kill yourself,” Varner added. “That's what happens in COVID-19.”

In lab tests, researchers found that eganelisib can keep myeloid cells from doing damage to human tissue and infected lab mice.

“We sequenced COVID-19 patient lung tissue and showed that when patients have COVID-19, a lot of their lung cells are killed and there's a huge increase in myeloid cells,” Varner said. “We also found the same thing in infected mice.”

“When we treated with the drug, we showed that eganelisib prevents entry of myeloid cells into tissue so they can’t do all that damage,” Varner added. “Further studies will determine if it can actually reverse damage.”

Eganelisib had similar results in mice infected with MRSA, researchers said.

Most approved COVID drugs target the virus, either by preventing infection or inhibiting the virus’ spread, researchers said.

Eganelisib works by targeting the person’s immune system, preventing a damaging overreaction that causes tissue scarring. No other drug with a similar approach to treating COVID has been approved yet.

Eganelisib received fast-track designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2020, but has not yet been approved. The company that developed the drug, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, declared bankruptcy in 2023.

Varner said she hopes these results will lead drugmakers to develop other PI3K gamma inhibitors to treat infectious diseases like COVID and MRSA.

“We hope that this research will help us obtain funding to continue investigating this approach in other disease settings,” Varner added.

More information

The American Heart Association has more about how COVID affects the organs.

SOURCE: University of California, San Diego, news release, July 1, 2024

What This Means For You

Experimental inflammation-fighting drugs might one day help prevent organ damage related to COVID.

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