Novant Health first in the southeast to participate in clinical trial to combat COVID-19

Updated: Apr. 8, 2020 at 6:08 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Novant Health is the first hospital system in the southeast to take part in a clinical trial involving a drug that could treat patients with COVID-19.

Washington State-based pharmaceutical company CytoDyn developed a drug called Leronlimab. It is used to treat HIV and some breast cancers. Now, scientists are hoping it can also treat patients with COVID-19.

“It seems that it may prevent mild to moderate symptoms from progressing to the severe part of the disease like Acute Respiratory Distress System or admittance to the ICU, intubation, etc.,” Novant Health’s Dr. Alan Scarbnik said.

Novant Health Hematologist Dr. Alan Scarbnik says its research teams are typically focused on clinical trials related to oncology and other diseases, but since the pandemic they have shifted their focus to find treatments for COVID-19.

Typically, Dr. Scarbnik says it will take four to six months to launch a clinical trial, but due to researchers working around the clock, Novant Health was able to launch this clinical trial four days after initial contact with CytoDyn.

Dr. Scarbnik says when the body is under attack from COVID-19, the cell receptor known as CCR5 causes inflammation in the body’s lungs. Too much inflammation can lead to shortness of breath.

“That infiltration of cells in the lungs creates a jelly-like substance in there, the lungs become stiffer and it’s harder to breathe,” Dr. Scarbnik explained. “That’s why patients end up going into the ICU and being intubated.”

Leronlimab is supposed to block the CCR5 cell receptor from causing inflammation in the lungs. Under an emergency approval by the FDA, the drug was used on a handful of patients with severe cases of COVID-19 in New York. CEO and President of CytoDyn Rader Pourhassan says several of the patients came off of ventilators.

“I cried. I cried for like 5 minutes and I couldn’t stop because it was unbelievable that we could actually do this,” Pourhassan said.

He thinks the drug will be more beneficial in mild and moderate cases of COVID-19 because it will be administered before the lungs are damaged from hyper-inflammation.

“It would work a lot better if patients came on earlier, according to our scientists,” Pourhassan said. “Because when you wait and get the product later, that means your lungs are already in very bad shape.”

Novant Health is one of 10 centers in the U.S. that will take part in this clinical trial. A total of 75 patients with mild to moderate symptoms will be enrolled.

The drug is administered in two doses a week apart from each other. The patient will then be monitored for six weeks.

“Shot under the skin, pretty much like an insulin shot. Subcutaneous, It’s Not an IV. The previous trials showed very little side effects, a little bit of injection site reaction, a little bit of headache, a little bit of diarrhea,” Dr. Scarbnik said.

If successful, the drug could become more widely available in a few months, according to Dr. Scarbnik.

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