Cancer drug brings respiratory help for patients with severe coronavirus disease

A team of researchers from the University of Marburg successfully treated a 65-year-old female suffering from coronavirus-induced acute respiratory distress syndrome with a cancer drug, ruxolitinib. Their findings look very promising for the treatment of patients with SARS-CoV-2 induced severe lung injury.

(Credit: Mongkolchon Akesin / shutterstock)

In most cases, an infection with the coronavirus  SARS-CoV-2 is associated with mild respiratory symptoms. However, in about 5% of patients, coronavirus disease can quickly progress and result in severe lung injury and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). In these patients, the mortality rate is high, and researchers are still looking for an optimal therapy which can stop the overwhelming inflammatory response, the so-called cytokine storm, leading to lung tissue damage.

Ruxolitinib can stop the cytokine storm

The research team led by the oncologist Prof. Dr. Andreas Neubauer at the University of Marburg reported the first successful usage of the cancer drug ruxolitinib for the treatment of severe COVID-19 respiratory symptoms. The team administered the drug to a 65-year-old female patient requiring invasive ventilation due to coronavirus disease-associated ARDS. The patient was admitted to the hospital for respiratory distress and fever. Her condition deteriorated very rapidly, and she had to be quickly transferred to the ICU and intubated immediately.
The treating physicians decided to treat the patient with ruxolitinib, a drug that inhibits the enzymes responsible for excessive inflammatory reactions. In fact, in the case of severe coronavirus disease progression, these overwhelming cytokine responses lead to devastating damage to lung tissue. The decision was not an easy one for the medical team; there was no guarantee that their hypothesis would be effective in the clinical setting. However, they were proved to be correct by the patient’s further clinical course. After administration of ruxolitinib, the patient’s clinical condition stabilized and then improved rapidly. Her respiratory and cardiac function returned to normal. Ten days after her admission to the ICU, the patient was intermittently weaned from the respirator.

The Marburg success to be studied in a clinical trial

The successful treatment of this COVID-19 patient is not an isolated case. Other patients with severe coronavirus disease in Marburg and at the Schwarzwald-Baar-Klinikum near Freiburg have also benefited from the administration of ruxolitinib. Due to the close temporal association between drug administration and clinical responses, the researchers assume that the inhibition of the inflammatory overreaction might have a positive effect on the disease’s clinical course. To further test the effects of the administration of ruxolitinib in COVID-19 associated ARDS, the German Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices has now approved a clinical trial.

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