It’s a shame that all Minnesotans couldn’t listen in on an editorial writer’s encouraging conversations this week with Mayo Clinic and University of Minnesota doctors tasked with finding and evaluating new treatments for COVID-19.
The pandemic caused by this new strain of coronavirus has taken a grim turn in recent days. Confirmed cases in the United States now surpass every other country, and deaths here have topped 1,300. In New York, hospitals are struggling to find ventilators and other equipment to care for patients.
It’s hard to stay hopeful, but the competence, confidence and energy emanating right now from these Minnesota experts offers something all too rare these days — a morale-booster. There are no proven therapies for COVID-19, but the state’s world-class medical centers are mobilizing to find remedies.
“We know how to do this. We’ve done it before. We can accelerate the process,’’ said Dr. Tim Schacker, an infectious-disease expert and vice dean for research for the U’s Medical School. Schacker was on the front lines of treating AIDS patients with experimental antiretroviral drugs that ultimately proved to be lifesavers.
To be sure, the work underway in Minnesota and elsewhere will not quickly lead to a cure. But having doctors here playing lead roles in clinical trials translates to cutting-edge care available for Minnesotans who become seriously ill or are at risk of it.
It also sends an important message to those scouring the dark corners of the internet for dubious cures or worse, trying to self-medicate based on a snippet of information, a situation that recently cost an Arizona man his life.
Even drugs that are already on the market can have serious side effects or be dangerous at incorrect dosages. Leave treatment in the capable hands of Minnesota doctors.
At Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Dr. Michael Joyner is part of a team nationally that is pursuing a back-to-the-future approach. He is working with an effort spearheaded by a Johns Hopkins University doctor to evaluate a treatment used historically to treat infectious diseases before vaccines. It involves taking antibody-rich plasma from the blood of patients who have survived COVID-19, then infusing it into those who are ill to help their bodies fight off the disease. The approach is known as “convalescent plasma treatment.”
It’s likely the fastest way to get people a reasonable biological therapy while waiting for a vaccine and other medications, Joyner said. A key reason: Procedures are already well-established to gather blood and administer products derived from it.
This vast capability could be harnessed to gather antibody-rich plasma from donors and process it into a concentrated treatment more broadly available beginning in July or August. Early use of this approach could begin in Minnesota as soon as next month.
There wouldn’t be a “Lazarus effect” on patients, Joyner cautioned, referencing the biblical figure who rose from the dead. But it could prevent patients from needing intensive care. (Minnesotans who have had COVID-19 and want to donate plasma should e-mail Joyner at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
At the University of Minnesota, there are three clinical trials either started or in the works to evaluate existing drugs for prevention and treatment. Drugs under study include hydroxychloroquine, a drug touted by President Donald Trump that is also used to treat lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
Also under evaluation: losartan and remdesivir. Losartan is often used to treat high blood pressure. Researchers believe it might block the COVID-19 virus from entering cells. Remdesivir was developed to fight Ebola but failed. But it might work against coronaviruses. It was also given to one of the first U.S. COVID-19 patients, who quickly recovered.
Schacker said it’s too soon to say if any of these drugs are a “game-changer.” In his medical circle, remdesivir is generating the most buzz. But, he said, careful study is critical and there’s a long history of drugs that looked promising in the laboratory or even animal testing that fizzled in human trials.
The U is also considering other therapies for study, and drug companies are reaching out with innovative ideas. These efforts illustrate the central role that medical research centers will play in fighting this pandemic. This shouldn’t be forgotten when normal times return. Institutions like the U and Mayo rely heavily on federal support for medical research. Minnesota and the nation are better prepared for this crisis because of the public’s investment in these institutions.