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Cancer drug that worked on Zika and Ebola might stop coronavirus

Published May 22nd, 2020 7:06PM EDT
Coronavirus Treatment
Image: Rick Findler/Shutterstock
  • Coronavirus treatment options could include a cancer drug that showed antiviral activity against Zika and Ebola.
  • BerGenBio’s bemcentinib is currently in Phase 2 clinical trials in the UK. If effective, the drug could be used in COVID-19 therapies in the future.
  • This potential coronavirus cure comes as a one-a-day pill that could stop the virus from getting into cells and prevent the infection from deactivating a crucial immune response.

We’re all hoping that vaccines will be found to fight against the novel coronavirus and prevent the disease from infecting more people in the years to come. But vaccines might not work, and that’s why we’re not placing all our eggs in one basket. More than 100 labs are testing vaccine candidates, including a handful of teams that have reached human trials with promising results. But doctors are also developing new COVID-19 therapies that either rely on meds used to treat other ailments, or brand new antibodies-based drugs.

One such drug is remdesivir, which was conceived to treat Ebola but showed promise in COVID-19 therapy. Researchers from Britain and Norway have a different antiviral in mind, one that showed promising results against Zika and Ebola in lab testing, and which is now being tried on coronavirus patients in a clinical trial in the UK.

BerGenBio, with offices in Bergen, Norway, and Oxford, England, is a biotech company that employs just 38 people. They developed a drug called bemcentinib that has already reached Phase 2 of clinical trials. The company announced that bemcentinib was selected to be fast-tracked as a potential COVID-19 treatment through the ACCORD platform — short for ACcelerating COVID-19 Research & Development.

The study will include 60 COVID-19 patients who will receive the bemcentinib compound and 60 patients who will get standard care across six UK NHS hospitals.

The drug is a “once-a-day, oral, highly selective and potent inhibitor of AXL kinase,” the company explained in late April when the clinical trial was announced. The drug can play a key role in cancer treatment, “preventing immune evasion, drug resistance and metastasis in a variety of cancer trials,” in addition to working against Ebola and Zika in preclinical trials.

The drug inhibits AXL kinase activity, blocks the virus from entering the cell, and enhances the antiviral type I interferon response. Interferon is a key mechanism involved in immunity which can slow down the viral replication in a cell. Recent studies explain that the novel coronavirus can inhibit a cell’s interferon genes, and prevent the release of the substance. Separately, researchers from Hong Kong have used interferon in an effective triple-drug combo in COVID-19 therapy. Stanford researchers are looking at a different type of interferon for coronavirus treatment.

“By inhibiting AXL with our drug, you prevented the virus from getting into the cell,” BerGenBio CEO Richard Godfrey told ABC News. “And you also prevented the deactivation of the antiviral immune response that that’s critical for our bodies to clear infections … so it’s a dual mechanism of action that the virus can hijack. That’s really important.”

The CEO warned that the drug won’t be the “magic pill” that can treat the disease, as that’s very rare for any illness. “Normally, it’s a combination of drugs, whether it’s complementary mechanisms or mechanisms that support another. So I think we’re going to see combinations emerging, and we already are seeing those being trialed,” he said.

Godfrey said he has high hopes for the drug without revealing any details about its efficacy. As with other therapies that are fast-tracked for clinical trials, vaccines included, we’ll have to wait before we get meaningful data.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.