Doctors repurpose drug to fight off COVID-19 ‘cytokine storm’

A woman prepares a syringe at a vaccination point against measles in Cucuta, Colombia, at the international brigde Simon Bolivar on the border with Venezuela, on March 21, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Schneyder Mendoza (Photo credit should read SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP/Getty Images via CNN)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – A drug used to treat hyperinflammation in cancer patients is now being used to reduce systemic inflammation in those infected with COVID-19. 

Clinicians at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut say tocilizumab lessens the severity of a lethal immune response linked to the disease called Cytokine Release Syndrome (CRS), also known as a “cytokine storm.” 

“The hyperinflammation that happens in some cancer patients…resembles the cytokine storm in COVID-19,” Dr. Christina Price, assistant professor of immunology at Yale School of Medicine, said in a news release. “We chose this drug for biological reasons.”

A cytokine storm is a severe immune reaction that occurs when the body releases too many of the disease fighting cells too quickly. Instead of attacking the intended target, the cytokines attack the body instead. Hyperinflammation is a cardinal sign of a cytokine storm and can lead to multiple organ failure and death.  

Price and her team administered tocilizumab to 153 patients infected with the coronavirus who showed signs of hyperinflammation and monitored them for 14 days. After two weeks, the survival rate for those treated with the drug was 87 percent indicating tocilizumab was effective in suppressing COVID-19 cytokine storms in these patients.

The results of the analysis are published in the June 15 edition of the journal Chest and additional studies at Yale are expected to further assess the impact the drug has on coronavirus patient outcomes.