Georgia State COVID-19 research draws interest, calls for more testing

Georgia State University postdoctoral researcher Hussin Rothan participates in a project to determine the potential use of the arthritis drug auranofin as COVID-19 treatment. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED.
Georgia State University postdoctoral researcher Hussin Rothan participates in a project to determine the potential use of the arthritis drug auranofin as COVID-19 treatment. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED.

Recent research for a COVID-19 treatment by a Georgia State University team is creating cautious optimism among some independent biologists and medical experts.

In a 12-page paper released last week, the team reported that it had tested auranofin, a rheumatoid arthritis drug already on the market, in human cells infected with the virus. The drug made about 95% of the virus disappear in 48 hours, and the infection completely disappeared shortly thereafter, the researchers say.

The Georgia State team believes it is the first such research of auranofin as a potential COVID-19 treatment.

Experts interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said they want to see testing with more cells to determine how well this treatment can work. “It’s the first step in a 100-yard race,” said Ross McKinney Jr., chief medical officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

He called the work interesting but said additional cell research could determine potential dangers, such as higher toxic levels that could harm patients.

Dr. Jun Wang, an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Arizona, also said more research is necessary. Wang said the drug may work in cells from one patient, but not others. Still, Wang said of the research, “there’s hope here.”

“I hope they will work on this, or somebody will work on this,” he said.

Scientists worldwide are racing to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, which has no known cure. It typically takes years to find vaccines, but researchers are working faster amid the worldwide pandemic. Researchers are also testing medication already approved by federal regulators as safe and effective to see if those drugs can be repurposed to fight the new infection.

A few miles from Georgia State, at Emory University, researchers recently received FDA approval to begin human clinical trials on EIDD-2801, an antiviral compound which can be taken orally. The drug was developed several years ago to battle a broad spectrum of viruses and has shown strong results in animal testing against influenza. McKinney called the Emory research "a little bit farther along."

Other researchers are testing additional arthritis drugs, such as baricitinib. One side effect of that drug is it can make infections worse, however it may tamp down on the immune system response to the virus that can rage out of control.

Experts say anti-inflammatory arthritis drugs are being studied for COVID-19 because they have properties researchers believe can successfully attack the disease by blocking the virus stress in cells, preventing the virus from growing.

The research at Georgia State, which used virus isolated from a COVID-19 patient in Washington state, began in March and took about four weeks.

Mukesh Kumar is an assistant professor of biology at Georgia State University. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED.
Mukesh Kumar is an assistant professor of biology at Georgia State University. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED.

Mukesh Kumar, one of the Georgia State researchers, said they tested several drugs and chose auranofin because it is already FDA-approved, it has antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties, and it has been used as a potential treatment for diseases such as cancer and HIV.

Kumar, an assistant biology professor who specializes in infectious disease research, said his team was excited by the results but wants to do more research and have their paper peer-reviewed, which is in the works. They also urge anyone to talk to their physician before using the drug for COVID-19 treatment.

Kumar said the next steps include testing this drug in animal models and experimentally in humans to see how effective it is in treating COVID-19. They are also testing auranofin with other medicines to see if they can work better together and if it can be inhaled.

Kumar, too, is hoping others will do similar research with the drug.

“I’m hoping with this out, we will see more data,” Kumar said.

COVID-19 research in Georgia

Several Georgia universities are conducting research to find treatment or vaccines for the novel coronavirus. Here are some ongoing efforts:

  • Emory University announced Monday it has begun enrolling adults over age 55 in the clinical trial of an investigational vaccine called mRNA-1273. Forty-five patients were being tested in the trial, which is in the first phase.
  • The University of Georgia released an update Monday on a potential vaccine that was previously being studied for its effectiveness against the coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. The researchers have refocused their work now on the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. More testing is being done. They hope it will be ready for FDA approval by year's end.
  • Augusta University faculty are working on an antibody to attack the virus. They are also looking at the blood of patients to help determine how sick an individual might get and whether a treatment is helping get them well.

In Other News