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Immunology pioneer voices great hopes for Roswell's experimental Covid-19 treatment

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Covid-19 can cause an exaggerated immune response in the lungs. Researchers with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and the University at Buffalo are part of a trial to see if a biological medication used to treat rheumatoid arthritis can tamp that down in at least some patients. (Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

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An immunology and molecular biologist pioneer who grew up here and now works in California hailed the news that some of the sickest Covid-19 patients at local hospitals began receiving an experimental treatment led by a researcher from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Nice to see Buffalo on the cutting edge,” said Andy Blidy, who grew up on the West Side and in Evans.

Blidy voiced great hopes for the trial, in which health providers at three hospitals will administer sarilumab, a monoclonal antibody against a protein that can worsen symptoms for those whose novel coronavirus has reached the critical stage in the ICU.

A study of 20 critically ill Covid-19 patients in China treated in February with tocilizumab showed promising results, said Blidy, a developmental scientist who attended D’Youville College and worked at Roswell Park in the early 1980s.

He moved to Boston in the 1980s to do graduate work at Tufts Medical School with some of the world’s top immunologists and later moved to the San Francisco region, diagnostics for HIV at BD Monoclonal Center and Applied Biosystems on the Human Genome Project.

Sarilumab and tocilizumab are both biologic medications given by injection to dial back inflammation for those with rheumatoid arthritis, easing swelling and joint pain.

They do so by supressing the free flow of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a protein that in the lungs can supercharge inflammation and dramatically lower oxygen levels for the sickest of Covid-19 patients.

Critically ill Covid-19 patients in WNY to start getting new experimental treatment

Dr. Igor Puzanov, director of the Early Phase Clinical Trials Program and chief of melanoma services at Roswell Park, leads the new trial. He works extensively with tocilizumab.

“Some of the ways that Covid-19 affects the body are similar to how cancer and autoimmune conditions affect the body, so we can draw on what we know from those fields to address the pressing challenge of how best to treat the novel coronavirus,” he said.

The two medications are among dozens of treatments made from antibodies that researchers around the world are using to try to slow or halt Covid-19 symptoms.

Many of the largest drug companies are involved in the effort. Blidy predicted those companies should be able to ramp up production within months if one or more treatments work. He predicted it will be more than one, possibly a combination. He also expressed hope for a Mesenchymal stem-cell treatment being developed by the biotech firm Athersys to fight acute respiratory distress syndrome, the most dangerous of Covid-19 symptoms.

"Data from China suggest that the IL-6 pathway may play an important role in the overactive inflammatory response in the lungs of patients with Covid-19,” said Dr. George D. Yancopoulos, co-founder, president and chief scientific officer of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which makes sarilumab. “Despite this encouraging finding, it's imperative to conduct a properly designed, randomized trial to understand the true impact.”

The Buffalo Niagara region is among 16 sites around the world in the multi-center study, which started in New York State. Regeneron looks to enroll up to 400 patients.

Gene Morse, co-principal investigator, will oversee treatment protocols at Erie County Medical Center, Buffalo General Medical Center and Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital. He is a distinguished UB pharmacy professor, co-director of the SUNY Global Health Institute and director of the UB Center for Integrated Global Biomedical Sciences.

Enrollment is quickly expected to reach its threshold.

“We hope to announce soon clinical trials of other new or repurposed drugs to help patients suffering from Covid-19 in Western New York and elsewhere,” said Dr. James Mohler, a urologist and associate director and senior vice president for Translational Research and Chief of Inter-Institutional Academics at Roswell Park.

Blidy said he sees a new age of biology about to begin as researchers get to work trying to halt the latest new virus, one that has stopped most of the world in its tracks.

He wishes scientists got more love from the general public, most of whom know few beyond Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has served until recently in near anonymity as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984.

When it comes to the new anti-inflammatory trials, Blidly predicted, we may soon have another scientist to thank: Dr. James P. Allison, who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for development of new strategies for tumor immunotherapy that may have lots of other uses yet.

“It’s kind of why this is exciting,” he said, “because it's validating and verifying that trials can work.”


Twitter: @BNrefresh@ScottBScanlon

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