- Doctors in Israel will try a novel coronavirus therapy on a limited number of patients.
- Unlike other studies, the new COVID-19 protocol involves a procedure that’s used regularly in cancer therapy.
- Anecdotal evidence showed that low-dose radiation therapy (LDRT) could improve the condition of patients with pneumonia symptoms, including COVID-19 patients.
- Researchers are looking to determine a radiation-based treatment course for COVID-19 that could reduce complications and hasten recovery.
The world is now well into its eighth month of dealing with the novel coronavirus, and we still don’t have a cure. Scientists have made rapid advancements already when it comes to COVID-19 treatment protocols, discovering therapies that can lower the risk of complications and save lives. But there’s no “miracle cure” right now.
Many other treatment ideas are currently in testing, and it will be a few months until we know whether they work — that’s on top of over 170 vaccine candidates that have been registered so far. What’s reassuring is that doctors haven’t stopped trying to figure out ways to help the body heal, and the latest example comes from a hospital in Israel, where a group of doctors thinks they can use an effective cancer treatment on COVID-19.
This time around, we’re not looking at a new drug. Instead, doctors at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer want to use low-dose radiation therapy (LDRT) on COVID-19 patients. The Jerusalem Post notes that the therapy would be the first of its kind in the country and only one of a handful of similar studies worldwide.
The Sheba doctors realized that some of their predecessors have been treating LDRT to treat pneumonia, as far back as a century ago. “When the COVID crisis began, there were some older radiotherapists in the world who remembered that 70 years ago some doctors were using low-dose radiation therapy to treat pneumonia,” Prof. Zvi Symon told the paper.
The researchers found 700 pneumonia patients who were given radiation therapy between 1905 and 1946, with marked clinical improvements in the hours and days after administration. These studies took place well before the era of randomized trials and peer-reviewed journals, so questions about the efficacy of the treatments still linger.
The results were “encouraging,” according to Symon. Then the oncologists found a recent study from Emory University in Atlanta that detailed a similar experiment on five coronavirus patients, which were compared to a control group. The patients who received LDRT had 40% less need for mechanical ventilation and intensive care than those who didn’t.
This was enough to convince the Sheba team to apply for approval. Some physicians opposed the idea, concerned that radiation would have side effects on the body. But the Health Ministry ultimately approved the treatment protocol, with 30 patients expected to undergo LDRT in the coming weeks.
Unlike cancer, the doses for COVID-19 will be much smaller. Between one-70th or one-100th of the amount given to cancer patients will be used during the treatment, targeting both lungs. “There is no acute toxicity or damage associated with this kind of dose of radiation, at least to the naked eye,” Symon said.
The hospital already treated a few patients under a compassionate-use provision, and the researchers found that patients got better. “Patients who received radiation improved and managed to go off oxygen and could breathe well in three to four days, whereas other patients who did not receive the radiation took an average 12 days after pneumonia,” the oncologist said.
The researchers aim to treat patients soon after the onset of symptoms and before the illness has started damaging multiple organs.
The biggest challenge seems to be the logistics of transporting patients from COVID-19 wards to the radiotherapy section of the hospital where cancer patients receive their radiation therapy. The researchers will have to prevent any contact between COVID-19 patients and cancer patients — cancer is a significant risk factor for coronavirus.