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Old paper may offer fresh insights on disease

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Two University of New Mexico scientists dusted off a decade-old, unpublished research paper because they think it may explain how certain drugs have helped treat patients with COVID-19.

The scientists, Graham Timmins and Vojo Deretic, say it’s possible their old work looking at what helped cystic fibrosis patients could offer insight into effective treatments against the novel coronavirus.

After giving it a fresh title and new introduction, their old paper was published two weeks ago on bioRxiv, an online resource for biological research that hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin are being studied intensively as possible treatments for patients with COVID-19, though health experts have said the drugs aren’t yet proven.

UNM Hospital is among those that have launched a clinical trial using hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin.

“When chloroquine hit the press a month ago, (I) could see the old tape roll through my head and I was thinking, ‘this is how it probably works,’ ” said Deretic, chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology.

From 2002 to 2010, Timmins and Deretic partnered on several research projects looking at how to treat patients with cystic fibrosis, a chronic disease that affects the lungs.

One paper, which at the time wasn’t published, looked at how azithromycin and ciprofloxacin were helping patients.

The drugs were being administered in doses that weren’t killing the bacterial infection in the cystic fibrosis patients, but the patients were feeling better, said Timmins, a professor in the UNM College of Pharmacy who specializes in developing diagnostics and treatments for respiratory infections.

The question they tried to answer was how the drugs were working.

They concluded that the drugs were effective because they were weak bases – the opposite of an acid. Because of their pH level, the drugs neutralized inflamed lung cells that had become acidic. After 2010, they started focusing on different research and never published their paper.

But they didn’t delete it. And now they think the research may explain why drugs like hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, typically used against parasites and bacteria, could be effective against a virus.

“So this paper was just sitting on our computers,” Timmins said. “But as soon as we started to hear about chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine and lots of people were saying … ‘how do they work?’ The idea was, ‘well, we could provide this information.’ You don’t need to have anti-viral activity. You are just modulating inflammation.”

When a patient becomes infected with the coronavirus, the body’s immune system tries to attack the virus, leading to inflammation that, in severe cases, can lead to organ failure, UNM said in a news release.

Timmins and Deretic hypothesize that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have had success with some COVID-19 patients by neutralizing inflammation in the lungs.

“We didn’t pull this out of a hat all of a sudden,” Deretic said. “We had … data from the past and it didn’t really take much genius to see that maybe this would help with COVID.”

They said it’s not clear how and if clinicians could benefit from their work.

“It’s not really about our research. It’s about a serious disease that is affecting the whole world on so many levels, it’s the economy, it’s everybody’s life on hold. We wouldn’t have put this out if we didn’t think it would help,” Deretic said. “We just needed to share it with everybody so people could look at it and take it for whatever it’s worth.”


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