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This arthritis drug may improve COVID survival in elderlies

LONDON: Scientists have claimed that a type of arthritis drug called ‘baricitinib’ may reduce the risk of dying among elderly patients infected with COVID-19. This medication is usually used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, and was initially identified by the Imperial College London using artificial intelligence as a drug that could have anti-viral and anti-inflammatory effects.

In the early-stage study, 83 patients, with a median age of 81 and all suffering from moderate to severe COVID-19 infection, were given baricitinib drug. The patients, who were in multiple hospitals across Italy and Spain, had a 71 per cent reduced risk of dying — compared to patients who had not taken the drug.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances also found that 17 per cent of patients who were given the drug died or needed to go on a ventilator, compared to 35 per cent in the control group who were not given the medication.

Computer to clinic

“This is one of the first COVID-19 treatments to go from computer to clinic and laboratory,” said study co-author Justin Stebbing from Imperial. “It was first identified by an AI algorithm in February, which scanned thousands of potential drugs that could work against this virus,” Stebbing added.

In the research, scientists grew miniature human organs in the lab, called organoids, to investigate how exactly the drug may combat COVID-19. The findings revealed that the drug may help work in two ways: reduce organ damage caused by inflammation, and blocking the virus entering human cells.

When infected with the COVID-19 virus, the body releases different types of inflammatory molecules, called chemokines and cytokines. These molecules act as the early warning system for the body, telling the immune system the body is under attack.

However, in the case of COVID-19, particular cytokine and chemokines, including those called interleukins and interferons, causes this warning system to spiral out of control, and trigger a so-called “cytokine storm“. This cytokine storm not only causes significant damage to the body’s organs, but the study revealed it also helps the virus gain access inside human cells.

The study showed a particular cytokine, called an interferon, increases the number of receptors, or docking points, for the virus. By doing this it, in effect, lowers the drawbridge and lets the virus into the cells of the body.

The researchers revealed the drug blocks this process occurring and so increases survival from COVID-19. The study suggests this drug can aid recovery of patients with moderate to severe COVID-19, and may provide a new weapon in our arsenal against the virus.

Baricitinib is indicated for the treatment of moderate to severe active rheumatoid arthritis in adult patients who have responded inadequately to, or who are intolerant to one or more disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs.

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