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Incyte, Novartis to test repurposed cancer drug in COVID-19

  • Delaware biotech Incyte, along with partner Novartis, plan to test their cancer drug Jakafi as a potential treatment for an overwhelming and damaging immune response that's been observed in some patients with COVID-19.

  • The companies will run two Phase 3 trials in the U.S. and Europe, respectively, as well as launch expanded access programs to allow administration of the drug while those studies gather evidence. 

  • Repurposing existing drugs for COVID-19 is a strategy being widely adopted by physicians and pharmaceutical companies searching for any effective therapy against the disease. In the case of Jakafi, Incyte and Novartis hope the drug could ease the acute respiratory distress that the new coronavirus can cause. 

In cancer cell therapy, treatment is sometimes associated with a severe immune reaction in which the body releases floods of inflammatory markers known as cytokines. The condition, dubbed a "cytokine storm," can bring on high fever and, in some cases, can be life-threatening. 

Preliminary evidence from studies in China suggest something similar could be occurring in patients with severe COVID-19. In one, a study of 191 patients treated at two hospitals in Wuhan, China, elevated levels of a cytokine called IL-6 was associated with more severe disease and death. Others have also indicated the virus might be inducing these cytokine storms, further stressing the body as it works to curb a rampaging viral infection. 

"Some anti-inflammation medication[s] such as JAK inhibitors also block INF-a production, which is important in fighting [the] virus, and theoretically may not be suitable for the treatment of inflammatory [cytokine storm]" caused by the new coronavirus, wrote researchers from Peking Union Medical College Hospital in Beijing, China, in a review published in Clinical Immunology. ​

Two small studies in Canada and Mexico testing Jakafi in COVID-19 recently launched, but the Phase 3 trials envisioned by Incyte and Novartis mark a more significant commitment. 

Author: Ned Pagliarulo

Pubished: April 3, 2020

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