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Multiple sclerosis drug to be studied for COVID-19 treatment

Large, ongoing studies of remdesivir are set to enter a new phase of research, in which doctors will test the impact of combining the drug with a medication already approved to treat multiple sclerosis, the National Institutes of Health announced Wednesday.The multiple sclerosis drug, called interferon beta-1a, is sold under the brand name Rebif. It’s…

Substantial, ongoing studies of remdesivir are put to go into a new period of research, in which doctors will examine the impact of combining the medication with a medication already approved to treat multiple sclerosis, the National Institutes of Health announced Wednesday.

The multiple sclerosis drug, known as interferon beta-1a, is marketed under the brand name Rebif. It has been accepted for use in the U.S. because 1996.

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This newest phase of study builds on previous research which found the antiviral remdesivir can cut back the amount of days COVID-19 patients are hospitalized, from 15 into 11, on average.

Just another medication, a steroid called dexamethasone, has also been shown in clinical trials to benefit COVID-19 patients in a significant way. A British analysis found the steroid can reduce deaths by about a third in the sickest patients with the coronavirus.

Despite the promise of both remdesivir and dexamethasone, it’s clear they will not be adequate to control the pandemic that’s now sickened over 4.8 million people in the U.S., killing nearly 160,000.

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What’s more, remdesivir is given intravenously, which means patients usually have to maintain a health facility to get it. And it is costly. Gilead, remdesivir’s maker, announced in June that it will bill more than $2,000 per person for a typical treatment course of the drug. (Dexamethasone, while much more economical, is just valuable in very sick patients, and could in fact be harmful when given in moderate COVID-19 instances .)

A large clinical trial, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, will now examine the effects of blending remdesivir using interferon beta-1a.

A previous research, posted to the preprint server medRxiv, suggested the interferon drug might help patients clean the virus faster.

Interferon is a molecule that’s found naturally within the body, and it is helpful to fight a variety of viruses. COVID-19 patients have a tendency to have a deficiency of the molecule, particularly in their lungs and blood, Dr. Andre Kalil, a primary investigator for the trial at the University of Nebraska Medical Center at Omaha, stated.

“If we substitute the interferon along with an antiviral [remdesivir], maybe we can stop the development of this illness,” Kalil said. “That’s the hypothesis.”

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About 1,000 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 globally will be included in the trial. Half will get remdesivir plus shots four times each day, of interferon beta-1a. The other half will probably get remdesivir plus placebo shots.

Interferon is known to come with side effects, such as flu-like symptoms, joint pain and fever, Kalil said, adding that most of those symptoms come after protracted usage of the drug.

Kalil’s group is also wrapping up studies of remdesivir and an anotther medication, an anti-inflammatory called baricitinib, used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Baricitinib, made by Eli Lilly and promoted as Olumiant, is what is called a Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitor. It blocks the enzyme that helps create.

“it is a race to gather all the information, and make sure everything is correct,” Kalil said. Those results are not expected for about another month.

But, in the event the study finds that baricitinib offers a significant advantage for the sickest COVID-19 patients, the medication might be added to the trial with remdesivir along with interferon beta-1a.

The plan is to keep on zeroing in on a variety of treatments to find the best mix of medications that could have the biggest impact on COVID-19.

Results on interferon beta-1a are anticipated sometime this fall.

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Image: Erika EdwardsErika Edwards

Erika Edwards is a medical and health news writer and reporter for NBC News and”TODAY.”

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