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UZ Gent (Flanders) unravels possible new COVID-19 treatment

Researchers at UZ Gent, the university hospital in Ghent (Flanders), have recently discovered that the cancer drug Leukine can also be used to treat seriously ill COVID-19 patients. Not only does the drug promote oxygen uptake, it also stimulates the immune system. Adding to the list of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines developed in Flanders, this is especially good news, as Leukine is administered using a simple inhaler. The clinical study is coordinated by Prof. Bart Lambrecht from the UZ Gent Pulmonology department and the VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research. 

A concerning observation

Professor and pulmonologist Bart Lambrecht explains that during the first wave of COVID-19, he and his colleagues noticed that patients had no macrophages in their lungs.

“Macrophages are white blood cells produced by the bone marrow that help fight infections. You can think of them as vacuum cleaners that suck up viruses in the lungs, neutralize them and then also repair tissue damage,” clarifies Prof. Bart Lambrecht.

In the patients we saw, macrophages had been replaced by similar cells that actually worsened the infection.

Prof. Bart Lambrecht
pulmonologist at UZ Gent

Tested and approved

Leukine is originally meant to protect cancer patients from the effects of chemotherapy, which destroys bone marrow cells. Leukine stimulates these cells to grow again.

UZ Gent decided to test Leukine in COVID-19 patients to stimulate macrophage proliferation, after tests on experimental animals with influenza showed positive results. The study involved 80 COVID-19 patients in 5 hospitals across Flanders. 40 patients received the regular treatment, while the other 40 were given Leukine.

Among the first patients, only 20% showed an increase in oxygen uptake, while this was the case for 54% of the patients that received Leukine. This group of patients also had more immune cells that kill the coronavirus.

Where do we go from here?

The new discovery opens a window of opportunities. US pharmaceutical company Partner Therapeutics, the producer of Leukine, has launched a larger study in US hospitals. Even more good news: Leukine is administered via a simple inhaler, and it has few to no side effects.

This study possibly shows that Leukine also works for early-stage COVID-19 patients. We are very eager to see the results. In the best case, we can also use Leukine against other infectious diseases in the future.

Prof. Dr. Bart Lambrecht
pulmonologist at UZ Gent

More info

UZ Gent
Reported by
website VRT NWS
6 April 2021

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