Repurposed Hepatitis C drugs could boost antiviral treatment for COVID-19, UT research shows

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Drugs used to treat Hepatitis C could be the newest tool in the fight against coronavirus, according to new research from a University of Texas scientist.

Dr. Robert Krug, Professor Emeritus of Molecular Biosciences, partnered with researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York for the study, and their results were published this week in Cell Reports.

They found combining certain Hepatitis C treatments with remdesivir — which is currently the only COVID-19 therapeutic approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States — can render the drug as much as ten times better at inhibiting the coronavirus in cell cultures.

Their findings mean this combination could be used as an antiviral treatment for COVID-19. Krug calls it “repurposing.”

“Take a drug that’s already out there, already approved. They know how it acts, and they know about its side effects. If you use it for a COVID cure, there will still be clinical trials but they will be very short,” he explained.

Robert Krug pointing
Dr. Robert Krug, pictured in a lab in 2018 discussing his research into the influenza virus. (KXAN Photo)

However, remdesivir must be administered intravenously — meaning it has to be given in a hospital setting. That’s why Krug said the next step would be finding an oral treatment that functions like remdesivir to pair with the oral Hepatitis drugs.

“You want to have pills that people can take, and they won’t end up in the hospital,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

Experts at FasterCures, a center of the Milken Institute, are tracking 326 compounds which could be developed into different kinds of coronavirus treatments. Those could range from antibody, antiviral, mRNA, RNA, or cell-based treatments to devices and immune modulators.

Executive Director Esther Krofah noted that while the vaccine is extremely important, therapeutics are essential to tackling this virus as vaccine hesitancy abounds and variants of the virus threaten the progress made so far.

“In the long-term, when we talk about how the economy will be fully reopened and everyone will be able to go about their daily activities, what they really want to know in the back of their mind is: do I have something available to me if I get sick?” she said.

In short, the goal would be to create a drug someone could pick up at their pharmacy, such as Tamiflu or Xofluza for influenza virus (the latter of the two was also developed based on research from Dr. Krug).

Yet from the beginning of the virus outbreak, Krofah said the development for these types of treatments got off to a slower, less unified and more wide ranging start than the coronavirus vaccine development process.

“We did not necessarily have the same ‘pick the top six or pick the top eight therapies’ and then invest significant resources into those clinical developments. There was not an equal Operation Warp Speed-like hundreds of millions of dollars poured in,” she said. “If we had a bit more coordination, could we have gotten some earlier answers? Perhaps.”

That being said, she noted that the federal government did come together through a program called ACTIV to create coordinated research strategy for the most promising treatments — just not to the scale of Operation Warp Speed.

Benchmark Research has been conducting various vaccine trials in the Austin area, however, the group has a partnership with urgent care facilities in California where they offer therapeutics trials.

“It’s very difficult to have that drive to enrollment because people tend to come in between Day 3 and 4 to be tested — or later. We have to catch them early, and that’s why the urgent cares work so well,” said Cynthia Dukes, Chief Business Officer.

Still, she said they’re seeing interest and enrolling one to two people per day in treatment trials through the partnerships.

“I think people realize there is no treatment there. This gives them the opportunity to access a potential treatment that may keep them out of the hospital,” she said.

Krug and the New York researchers findings have not been studied in a clinical trial yet, but he said they’d welcome any clinician who wanted to study their discovery, in order to hopefully see it help hospital patients fighting COVID-19 someday.

“This is to quickly get help,” he said.

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