KU Medical Center announces drug trial to help fight COVID-19

The University of Kansas Medical Center today announced a trial for a drug that may fight the cytokine storm common in COVID-19.

A researcher who usually focused on cancer, Dr. Gregory Gan, and a research usually focused on cystic fibrosis, Dr. Deepika Polineni, have teamed up to initiate a clinical trial.

KU Medical Center’s Department of Internal Medicine and the University of Kansas Cancer Center are joining efforts in this trial. The two doctors discussed the trial on Friday morning during a video news conference at the University of Kansas Health System.

They hope to enroll 36 hospitalized COVID-19 patients with respiratory problems to see if this cancer drug can be used to help those patients with inflammatory lung problems. They’ll also look to see if there’s any long-term damage from this “cytokine storm.”

Dr. Gan had wanted to study the new investigational drug, ATI-450, developed by Aclaris Therapeutics, Inc., that he had wanted to study for its potential to slow metastasis in cancer. Now, he and Dr. Polineni are studying whether it can be used, in conjunction with standard-of-care therapy, to halt respiratory failure in patients hospitalized with COVID-19. If successful, this drug could potentially keep those patients from needing mechanical ventilation.

The idea to study the drug in a COVID-19 use came about when Dr. Gan found himself stuck at home when the pandemic hit in March. His lab at the medical center was shut down, and he was unable to go about his research into a cancer drug.

It was while writing and reading about research findings in his field that it hit him. The same drug that he had wanted to study in cancer might also be effective in curtailing the lung inflammation of a “cytokine storm” that leads to respiratory failure and deaths of COVID-19 patients. After shifting gears, he teamed up with fellow researcher and pulmonologist, Dr. Polineni.

Together, the two researchers reached out to Aclaris about supporting a clinical trial to evaluate the potential of ATI-450 to treat people hospitalized with COVID-19, in conjunction with standard-of-care treatment.

“I’m lucky in that the pathway I’m already studying actually may have a role for managing COVID-19,” Dr. Gan said.

“The same cytokines this drug targets are also important to the inflammatory processes of lung disease I study in CF (cystic fibrosis),” Dr. Polineni said.

Dr. Roy Jensen, director of the University of Kansas Cancer Center, said this kind of collaboration is common in NCI designated cancer centers and will help bolster the case for the KU Cancer Center when it applies for Comprehensive Cancer Center status next year in September.

He also noted after this pandemic, the public will have a much better idea of what’s involved in developing drugs.

Patients who are age 18 or older and are hospitalized with COVID-19 and have respiratory symptoms may be enrolled in the study. The participants will be consenting patients being treated at the University of Kansas Health System.

“As physicians, we always want to advance the public good, and as scientists, we want to remain productive. All the lessons we’re going to learn from studying COVID-19 will hopefully help us design smarter studies in our respective areas and tell us a little bit more about the drug that we’re studying,” Dr. Gan said. “And that is, I think, the best I could have hoped for in the middle of a pandemic crisis.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated, based on information that has come to our attention about this drug trial. It is not a repurposed drug, as had been stated in the original story.

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