Scientists have published a review which suggests a common anaemia drug, erythropoietin, could become an effective treatment for COVID-19 – and are now planning a trial to test this approach.
A few case studies have suggested it could slow progression of the disease. One COVID-19 patient in Iran was prescribed erythropoietin for low blood count, and was able to leave hospital earlier than expected. In South America, COVID-19 infection appears to be less severe in regions with higher altitudes, where people naturally produce more erythropoietin to compensate.
A team led by Dr Hannelore Ehrenreich, of the Max Planck Institute of Experimental Medicine in Göttingen in Germany, reviewed previous studies of erythropoietin.
They report that previous animal experiments show erythropoietin affects areas of the brainstem and spinal cord that control breathing. It also has an anti-inflammatory effect, and has the potential to protect against neurological symptoms and long-term effects of COVID-19 such as headaches, dizziness, loss of smell and taste, and seizures.
In addition, certain patients who are already receiving erythropoietin appear to have less severe COVID-19 symptoms. “For example, we have observed that dialysis patients withstand COVID-19 remarkably well – and it is precisely these patients who regularly receive erythropoietin,” says Dr Enrenreich.
Their review was published recently in the journal Molecular Medicine. The team also outline in the article a clinical trial to test this approach, which they hope will begin soon.
Dr Ehrenreich says: “Because COVID-19 can have such severe health-related consequences, we must investigate any evidence of a protective effect of erythropoietin. After all, there is currently neither a vaccine nor a medication for the disease. We are therefore preparing a ‘proof-of-concept study’ to investigate the effect of erythropoietin on COVID-19 in humans.”
Ehrenreich H, Weissenborn K, Begemann M, Busch M, Vieta E, Miskowiak KW (2020) “Erythropoietin as candidate for supportive treatment of severe COVID-19.” Molecular Medicine, doi: 10.1186/s10020-020-00186-y
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