WEDNESDAY, April 22, 2020 (HealthDay News) — As researchers hunt for ways to treat severe COVID-19 infections, a new trial will ask whether an old arthritis drug can prevent serious complications in the first place.
The medication, called colchicine, is an oral anti-inflammatory that has long been prescribed for gout, a form of arthritis. Its history goes back thousands of years, and the drug was first sourced from the autumn crocus flower.
Doctors also sometimes use colchicine to treat pericarditis, where the sac around the heart becomes inflamed.
Now researchers in the United States and Canada are testing it for a different purpose: Keeping high-risk COVID-19 patients from getting sick enough to land in the hospital.
Colchicine is just one of several anti-inflammatory drugs currently in clinical trials for treating COVID-19.
It’s all part of a growing belief that the worst effects of the coronavirus infection are caused not by the virus itself, but by a massive overreaction of the immune system, known as a cytokine storm.
“I think there’s pretty substantial evidence that cytokine storm is involved,” said Dr. Randy Cron, a rheumatologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
In a cytokine storm, the immune system goes into overdrive — flooding the body with proteins (cytokines) that trigger widespread inflammation. That causes often fatal damage to organs.
Cron, who was not involved in the new trial, literally wrote the textbook on cytokine storms — the 2019 Cytokine Storm Syndrome.
He explained that the immune reaction is not unique to COVID-19: Cytokine storms can arise in response to other infections, to cancer, to certain cancer therapies, or in people with autoimmune diseases.
The storm that brews against the new coronavirus does appear to be unique in certain ways, according to Cron.
“One example is that it sets up shop in the lungs first,” he said.
Still, Cron and other researchers believe that treatments for cytokine storm could ultimately prove key in battling the coronavirus pandemic.
A few powerful anti-inflammatory drugs, used for conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, are already in late-stage trials. Those studies involve patients already hospitalized with COVID-19 pneumonia.