A Miami hospital will be the first in the country to test a possible COVID-19 treatment on humans this August.
The research center at Westchester General Hospital in Coral Terrace is on its way to enroll patients to test Ifenprodil, a pill developed in the 1970s to treat blood circulation disorders that may alleviate some COVID-19 side-effects in the lungs.
The drug, which was tested on a coronavirus patient overseas for the first time Wednesday, may reduce the severity and duration of COVID-19 infections, according to Algernon Pharmaceuticals, a Canadian drug repurposing company that investigates pre-approved drugs for new disease applications and is now leading Ifenprodil’s COVID-19 testing.
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“Just looking at the results of the research, it’s astonishing,” said Mark Williams, Algernon’s medical director. “Our drug might have a good chance at modulating the disease and hopefully reducing much of the damage that can occur in the lungs.”
Algernon will be testing the drug on 150 patients worldwide. Locations include Australia, Romania, the Philippines and the United States — with at least two locations in South Florida. Westchester General was the first site to be activated and will be investing $20,000 to $25,000 in the testing process, according to Williams.
Ifenprodil could treat a lung disease called Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, a “scarring or thickening of the lung tissue” that researchers fear is causing some COVID-19 deaths and could continue to threaten the lives of recovered patients after they leave the hospital, according to Algernon’s CEO, Christopher Moreau.
“It’s a very challenging condition to have because the average lifespan from the time of the diagnosis is about three years. And the tissue in the lungs starts to thicken and, as the disease progresses, there’s less and less oxygen in the blood,” Moreau explained.
There are two other drugs currently being considered to treat this specific coronavirus-induced disease: Pirfenidone, approved in the United States in 2014, and Nintedanib, approved in 2016. But Moreau and Williams believe that Ifenprodil could be a more effective treatment for COVID-19.
“Our drug works with a very different mechanism than [those of] other companies,” said Williams. “We’re helping boost and protect the patient instead of going after the disease.”
Algernon announced on March 6 that it was going to look into the drug as a possible treatment for COVID-19 after discovering a promising independent research study conducted in China, Moreau said.
The study showed that the drug was able to reduce mortality by 40 percent in people affected by the world’s most lethal avian flu, the Asian Avian Influenza A — a rare disease that was first detected in humans in 1997 in Hong Kong and reemerged in Canada in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Seeing some promise in Ifenprodil, Algernon began conducting its own studies to see its effects on the lungs. And the results, Moreau said, were incredible.
“We did an animal study where we went up against the Merck drug Gefapixant — which is what’s mainly used now to treat chronic cough — and our drug outperformed Merck’s by 110 percent,” he said.
But the breakthrough came with a third study released on June 1 by the University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for Advanced Pain Studies, where researchers discovered that Ifenprodil is made up of a unique compound that could stop COVID-19 from killing lung cells.
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Moreau suggested that Ifenprofil could be safer than a rushed vaccine and may be released to the public sooner.
“We definitely need to be working on a vaccine, but there’s a great risk [in rushing] the development process because of what it could mean if it goes wrong,” he said.
Moreau compared the race to develop COVID-19 treatments to the one that started in the 1980s for HIV, for which a vaccine has still not been approved.
“They’ve been working on a vaccine for 25 years and haven’t found one yet, but they do have a number of therapeutic options, drug choices, that sort of form a cocktail,” he said. “So for COVID-19, we need to look at those options too. They may just be the global fix.”
Originally written by CAROLINE GHISOLFI a local news reporter intern for The Miami Herald.
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