An Arizona research partnership is hoping a combination of two long-established drugs will reduce illness in patients in the Phoenix area who are hospitalized for COVID-19.
The local clinical trial is seeking to enroll 25 patients through the Scottsdale-based HonorHealth hospital system to test out the treatment, which is a combination of the antibiotic azithromycin and the anti-malarial drug atovaquone, also known as Mepron.
The trial is a partnership among the Translational Genomics Research Institute, HonorHealth and the HonorHealth Research Institute.
Atovaquone should not be confused with hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, two other antimalarial drugs that have been touted as possible treatments for COVID-19.
Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have been used with mixed results, since those drugs can cause heart problems in some patients. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration cautions against use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine for COVID-19 outside of a hospital setting or a clinical trial, citing a risk of heart rhythm problems.
The combination of atovaquone and azithromycin has the advantage of less risk of cardiac side effects compared with other potential COVID-19 treatments, researchers in the partnership say.
The two drugs also already have FDA approval for use together as a treatment for a parasitic illness called babesiosis, which is caused by microscopic parasites and can be spread by ticks.
TGen is partnering with a Phoenix hospital system on a clinical trial to treat patients with moderate to severe COVID-19 (Photo: azcentral file photo)
The research partners are testing their COVID-19 treatment for “moderate to severe illness.” The first patient was enrolled April 29.
The drug combination is one of several possible treatments for COVID-19, which is caused by the new coronavirus. Numerous hospitals across the country, including sites in Arizona, are using the plasma of people who have recovered from COVID-19 to treat those who are ill with the respiratory disease.
The immune systems of COVID-19 patients develop antibodies in their blood to fight the virus, and using the plasma of those patients may help others fight off the disease, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says. Another possible treatment is the antiviral Remdesivir.
There is no vaccine to prevent COVID-19 infection, but scientists around the world are working on developing a vaccine. In the meantime, finding effective treatments is a priority.
The goal of the TGen and HonorHealth clinical trial is not only to look at patients’ outcomes but focus on trying to understand the biology of how the drug combination may affect COVID-19, said Dr. Michael Gordon, an oncologist and medical director of HonorHealth Research Institute and co-principal Investigator of the trial.
“While most of our activities have historically been in conducting clinical trials in cancer, we made a major pivot to ensure that we could utilize our available resources to access clinical trials for COVID-19 and improve what we hope will be the outcomes for the patients,” Gordon said.
“The rationale for atovaquone’s combination with azithromycin comes from the biologic studies that have been done on COVID-19, looking at protein-to-protein interactions, suggesting that atovaquone would have anti-infectious activities.
“The azithromycin is an antibiotic known to have some antiviral activitieson respiratory epithelial cells.”
The study will regularly analyze nasopharyngeal swabs taken over time during treatment to figure out the COVID-19 viral load as a way of determining how well the drug combination is working, the researchers said.
David Engelthaler is co-director of TGen’s Pathogen and Microbiome Division, the institute’s infectious disease branch. (Photo: Translational Genomics Research Institute)
Scientists will be able to essentially count the amount of virus particles they see in the patients and hopefully monitor the drop in virus particles during treatment, said David Engelthaler, co-director of TGen’s Pathogen and Microbiome Division, the institute’s infectious disease branch.
“If the treatment is working well, the virus should drop down to very low levels and hopefully disappear,” Engelthaler said.
TGen, which is based in Phoenix, is an affiliate of the City of Hope, an independent research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases.
Reach health care reporter Stephanie Innes at Stephanie.Innes@gannett.com or at 602-444-8369. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieinnes
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