Pittsburgh-based biotech company CytoAgents is launching into phase one of clinical trials this month on a drug designed to treat people with COVID-19 who develop serious respiratory distress when their immune system overreacts to the virus.
According to CytoAgents CEO Teresa Whalen, severe illness in some patients is triggered by a cytokine storm which is an excessive immune response that attacks the body. She said the drug could be particularly helpful for someone hospitalized with COVID-19.
“Our drug will be used as soon as the patient enters the hospital to keep the patient from progressing to the ICU and avoiding the need for ventilators,” Whalen said.
The drug, GP 1681, is given orally and Whalen said that makes it more affordable than traditional immunotherapy treatments known as biologics which are often administered intravenously.
“Biologics are more than $10,000 for one course of therapy and we would likely be in the hundreds, possibly low one thousands, so there is a significant difference,” Whalen said.
In addition to COVID-19, Whalen said the drug is designed to combat cytokine storm in other infectious diseases like influenza.
“We are really excited by the potential of the science and the fact that we could be therapeutically helpful for not only this pandemic but many future pandemics,” Whalen said. She also noted her company is working with partners to conduct drug trials to treat people who have suffered intense respiratory failure and lung damage caused by vaping.
In July, CytoAgents announced it received an investment of $250,000 from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to support its first phase of clinical trials. The funding is part of the foundation’s $25 million Pandemic Solutions package to help local organizations respond to the coronavirus crisis.
Other pandemic assistance from RK Mellon includes $2.5 million to help colleges and universities in western Pennsylvania cover additional expenses they will incur as they reopen for the fall semester.