Can an existing drug be re-purposed to treat COVID-19 patients? UT researchers working to find out


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Right now, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, there is no specific medicine to treat the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

But researchers at the University of Texas hope to change that.

College of Pharmacy researchers, Bill Williams and Hugh Smyth, told KXAN they’re looking at how niclosamide could be re-purposed to treat coronavirus patients.

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Smyth explained the drug, already approved by the Food and Drug Administration, was “originally developed for use in livestock to treat parasites. Then it was used in humans to treat intestinal parasites, so it’s got a long history of use.”

The researchers said they were already studying niclosamide.

“Our research groups had been looking at niclosamide for other indications like prostate cancer,” Williams explained.

Williams said they found out recently an assessment of 3,000 FDA-approved drugs showed that same drug was also one of the most potent antiviral agents for COVID-19.

“What that means is it takes a very very low concentration of niclosamide to kill the SARS-Cov2 virus,” said Williams.

“As soon as we realized the potential health impact of COVID-19, our research teams quickly focused on collaboratively solving the drug delivery problems of niclosamide to allow us to provide additional therapies for physicians to treat this disease,” Smyth said in a news release. “The speed at which our team of scientists generated data, found collaborators and planned the pathway to human testing was amazing.”

The news release went on to explain:

“One problem with using niclosamide as an effective treatment is its poor absorption when taken orally. This limitation of the drug’s properties means that very little, if any, of the drug reaches the target site of the infection. The research team has developed novel drug delivery technologies to overcome these limitations. The team has increased the drug’s apparent solubility and is currently performing oral studies.

Another approach to overcoming the poor and variable absorption of the drug is to deliver it directly to the infection site.”

This is an image of a dry powder inhaler. This is what will be used to deliver the niclosamide to the lungs of a mild to moderately ill patient. The drug powder would be filled in the capsule that is sitting beside the inhaler. (Courtesy: Ashlee Brunaugh, UT Austin)

The researchers told KXAN because the virus damages people’s lungs, taking the drug by mouth may not be as effective. That’s why their strategy is focusing on turning the drug into powder, so it can be inhaled directly into people’s lungs, using an inhaler.

Smyth said they’re working diligently to start a clinical trial of the drug.

“Still a lot of testing to do, which potentially could be within several months, could be achieved,” he said.

Williams said, “We’re working with an already approved drug, which makes so much sense. What we’re trying to do is re-purpose and utilize those years of experience with the drug.”

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