Existing drug may downgrade COVID threat to common cold level — Jerusalem study
Hebrew University professor says he’s worked out what makes the raging virus so vicious, and how to fix it using an anti-cholesterol med; no human testing done yet
Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent
An existing medicine can “downgrade” the danger-level of coronavirus to that of a common cold, a Jerusalem researcher is claiming, after testing it on infected human tissue.
Prof. Yaakov Nahmias says that his research shows that the novel coronavirus is so vicious because it causes lipids to be deposited in the lungs, and that there is a solution to undo the damage: a widely-used anti cholesterol drug called fenofibrate.
“If our findings are borne out by clinical studies, this course of treatment could potentially downgrade COVID-19’s severity into nothing worse than a common cold,” Nahmias said.
Unlike remdesivir, which is being lauded for its effect on coronavirus patients, fenofibrate, sometimes sold under the brand name Tricor, is already accredited by America’s Food and Drug Administration and is in plentiful supply. Remdesivir is in short supply and is also still pending full approval by regulators like the FDA.
Nahmias, director of Hebrew University’s Grass Center for Bioengineering, reached his conclusion in joint research with Dr. Benjamin tenOever at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center. Their paper has gone live on an online portal run by Cell Press, publishers of biomedical journals, for research that hasn’t yet been peer reviewed.
Nahmias and tenOever performed lab tests on human lung cells infected with SARS-CoV-2.
Nahmias said they arrived at the idea that a cholesterol drug could help after studying the way in which the novel coronavirus “hijacks” the human body.
He told The Times of Israel: “The question is why this new coronavirus is so different from its close relatives that just cause a common cold. What we see is that this virus really changes lipid metabolism in the human lungs. The new coronavirus causes tiny lipid droplets to accumulate in the lungs, something you don’t normally see in the lungs in any significant quantity.”
Similar processes, hinging on the virus depositing fats, seem to take place in other parts of the body too, such as the liver, said Nahmias.
He believes that the virus does this in order to perpetuate itself in the host, and that if this process can be stopped, it will halt the onset of problems with organs — normally the lungs — that cause the virus to badly affect patients.
He said the virus interferes with the ability of the body to break down fat, and fenofibrate jump-starts this process. “The interesting thing about our study is that fenofibrate actually binds and activates the very site on the DNA that the virus shuts down — a part of our DNA that allows our cells to burn fat,” he stated.
“Virus infection causes the lung cells to start building up fat, and fenofibrate allows the cells to burn it.”
The restart of the process is swift, he said, comparing it to “when the plug is removed from the bath tub.”
Nahmias said that the high danger level from coronavirus isn’t caused by its infectiousness or the body’s general ability to rid itself of the virus, but rather by the unique symptoms it causes. “Your body can easily deal with the virus, all we need to do is deal with the symptoms,” he said.
“We need to give the body time to clear the virus without going into respiratory failure. And it’s by doing this that I think we can transform it into something far less serious, something like the common cold.”