'There is hope': Potential COVID-19 treatment being tested on 200 patients next week
An international team of researchers has developed a drug they hope could prevent COVID-19 from infecting human cells. (Credit: IMBA/Tibor Kulcsar)
VANCOUVER -- A drug that researchers hope could prevent people with COVID-19 from experiencing the most debilitating effects of the virus is moving forward with 200 human trials next week.
The potential treatment was developed by an international team led by Dr. Joseph Penninger, director of the Life Sciences Institute at the University of British Columbia, and is being given to patients with severe COVID-19 infections in Germany, Denmark and Austria.
Part of the reason the drug, called APN01, was ready for the placebo-controlled trials so early in the pandemic is that Penninger and his team have been working on it for more than a decade – it's based on research prompted by the 2003 outbreak of SARS.
"COVID-19 is the brother of the first SARS virus," Penninger told CTV News over the phone from Austria. "So, the first SARS outbreak helped us a lot to very quickly understand some of the fundamental principles of COVID-19."
That includes the way the novel coronavirus manages to attack and kill cells, which is believed to be by entering a surface receptor on the membrane called ACE2.
Penninger said what APN01 does, in layperson's terms, is prevent the virus from accessing that door into the cells by putting up a "fake door" to confound it. Testing on engineered replicas of human blood vessels and kidneys grown from stem cells found the drug inhibited the coronavirus load by "a factor of 1,000-5,000," according to their findings, which were published this week in the journal Cell.
The authors noted that their studies focused on the early stages of infection, and so they "cannot make any predictions with respect to the effect of (the drug) in later stages of the disease process."
Penninger said they will be giving the human test subjects the drug intravenously for one week, then monitoring them for three more weeks. They hope to have data ready in early summer that will tell whether or not it was effective.
"If it works, which we hope – of course we can't guarantee – we should have the drug available for large trials to give to many, many more people in the world," he said.
"Hopefully our drug will contribute to solutions. There will be other drugs from other companies which will hopefully work, and then we can all rest better because we might get sick but there will be treatment options for us."
Penninger is currently stuck in Austria, where he grew up in a village of around 1,000 people, due to Canada's COVID-19 travel restrictions. He is not a Canadian citizen, but said he is asking the government for an exception that would allow him to return.
He said being in Austria has not impeded his work on APN01, however, and that coming back to Vancouver might actually slow him down because of self-isolation rules for travellers.
"In Vancouver, I would have to sit in my little apartment for two weeks and look out the window," he joked.
He noted that Austrians are now experiencing many of the same things Canadians are, with businesses closing, jobs disappearing and thousands of people catching the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus.
"It's interesting how a little virus can change our lives fundamentally," he added. "But there is hope."