Scientists find new treatment for cytokine storms, a major cause of COVID-19 death

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In a new study, researchers found a drug used to treat to HLH (ruxolitinib) could dramatically reverse respiratory and multi-system inflammation in severely ill COVID-19 patients.

HLH (hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis) is a deadly childhood immune disease.

The research was conducted by a team at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and elsewhere.

The so-called cytokine storm that inundates the bodies of severely ill COVID-19 patients with inflammatory cells produced by the immune system is a common feature of children battling secondary HLH.

The team was busy trying to study and find solutions to COVID-19, noticed this common clinical feature of both illnesses.

They also noticed that severe COVID-19 disease clinical manifestations are very similar to those seen in HLH.

Their previous work helped identify the drug ruxolitinib for treating secondary HLH. The anti-inflammatory drug is also used to treat other blood diseases including leukemia.

The study tested 43 hospitalized patients diagnosed with severe COVID-19 between February 9 and February 28 in Wuhan, China.

Patients taking drug ruxolitinib were selected to receive two daily 5mg oral doses of the anti-inflammatory drug, plus the standard of care treatment for COVID-19.

A control group of 21 patients received a placebo along with the standard of care treatment.

Patients treated with ruxolitinib had a shorter time to recover compared to the control group.

Researchers reported that 90 percent% of ruxolitinib patients showed CT scan improvement within 14 days, compared with 9 percent of patients from the control group.

Three patients in the control group eventually died of respiratory failure. All the severely ill patients who received ruxolitinib survived.

This is the first therapy that appears to work effectively to quiet the cytokine storm and inflammation in severe COVID-19 disease, and there are no significant toxicities to patients who take the drug by two pills a day.

The team says more clinical testing of the drug is needed.

A larger Phase III clinical trial RUXCOVID is now testing up to 400 severely ill COVID-19 patients with the drug.

This is critical until scientists can develop and distribute enough effective vaccines to help prevent people from becoming infected.

One author of the study is Cincinnati Children’s cancer pathologist Gang Huang, Ph.D.

The study is published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

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