Researchers at MIT and the University of Colorado at Denver have proposed a stopgap measure that they believe could help Covid-19 patients who are in acute respiratory distress. By repurposing a drug that is now used to treat blood clots, they believe they could help people in cases where a ventilator is not helping, or if a ventilator is not available.
Three hospitals in Massachusetts and Colorado are developing plans to test this approach in severely ill Covid-19 patients. The drug, a protein called tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), is commonly given to heart attack and stroke victims. The approach is based on emerging data from China and Italy that Covid-19 patients have a profound disorder of blood clotting that is contributing to their respiratory failure.
“If this were to work, which I hope it will, it could potentially be scaled up very quickly, because every hospital already has it in their pharmacy,” says Michael Yaffe, a David H. Koch Professor of Science at MIT. “We don’t have to make a new drug, and we don’t have to do the same kind of testing that you would have to do with a new agent. This is a drug that we already use. We’re just trying to repurpose it.”
Yaffe, who is also a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and an intensive care physician at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center/Harvard Medical School, is the senior author of a paper describing the new approach in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery. was co-authored by Christopher Barrett, a surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess and a visiting scientist at MIT; Hunter Moore, Ernest Moore, Peter Moore, and Robert McIntyre of the University of Colorado at Denver; Daniel Talmor of Beth Israel Deaconess; and Frederick Moore of the University of Florida.
In one large-scale study of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, it was found that 5 percent of patients required intensive care and 2.3 percent required a ventilator. Many doctors and public health officials in the United States worry that there may not be enough ventilators for all Covid-19 patients who will need them. In China and Italy, a significant number of the patients who required a ventilator went on to die of respiratory failure, despite maximal support, indicating that there is a need for additional treatment approaches.
The treatment that the MIT and University of Colorado team now proposes is based on many years of research into what happens in the lungs during respiratory failure. In such patients, blood clots often form in the lungs. Microthrombi can also form in the blood vessels of the lungs.
The researchers believe that tPA, which helps to dissolve blood clots, may help patients in acute respiratory distress. The natural tPA converts plasminogen to an enzyme called plasmin, which breaks down clots.
The idea to try this treatment in Covid-19 patients arose, in part, because the Colorado and MIT research team has spent the last several years studying the inflammation and abnormal bleeding that can occur in the lungs following traumatic injuries. It turns out that Covid-19 patients also suffer from inflammation-linked tissue damage, which has been seen in autopsy results from those patients and may contribute to clot formation.
“What we are hearing from our intensive care colleagues in Europe and in New York is that many of the critically ill patients with Covid-19 are hypercoagulable, meaning that they are clotting off their IVs, and having kidney and heart failure from blood clots, in addition to lung failure. There’s plenty of basic science to support the idea that this concept should be beneficial,” Yaffe says. “The tricky part, of course, is figuring out the right dose and route of administration. But the target we are going after is well-validated.”
The researchers will test tPA in patients under the FDA’s “compassionate use” program, which allows experimental drugs to be used in cases where there are no other treatment options. If the drug appears to help in an initial set of patients, its use could be expanded further, Yaffe says.
“If it were to work, and we don’t yet know if it will, it has a lot of potential for rapid expansion,” Yaffe says. “The public health benefits are obvious. We might get people off ventilators quicker, and we could potentially prevent people from needing to go on a ventilator.”
REFERENCE: Moore et al: Is There a Role for Tissue Plasminogen Activator (tPA) as a Novel Treatment for Refractory COVID-19 Associated Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)? Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, 2020; 1 https://journals.lww.com/jtrauma/Citation/publishahead/Is_There_a_Role_for_Tissue_Plasminogen_Activator.97967.aspx