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A new drug seeks 'true revenge' on COVID by turning the virus against itself

Fortune 10/3/2022 Erin Prater
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A neurologist at a prestigious U.S. research institute has developed an experimental COVID treatment he calls “true revenge” that weaponizes the virus against itself.

The treatment, dubbed NMT5, was created by Scripps Research Institute’s Neurodegeneration New Medicines Center founding director Dr. Stuart Lipton and a team of scientists. It’s a derivative of memantine, an Alzheimer’s drug Lipton developed in the 1990s that happened to originate from a drug used on people infected with the flu in the 1960s. 

Now a COVID antiviral, NMT5—if approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—would be taken orally by an infected person much like Paxlovid, the popular pills taken at home by those who’ve been diagnosed with the virus. 

But unlike Paxlovid, which prevents COVID from replicating in an infected person’s body, NMT5 alters the virus, causing it to gain “warheads” that temporarily alter the cells where COVID usually attaches and enters so that the virus is no longer capable of infecting them.

Because of the differing approach to attacking the virus, NMT5 is thought to prevent the spread of infection to others. Those infected with COVID who take the new drug are expected to spread virus that destroys itself—meaning it should be unable to infect a new host, according to the study.

It’s a feat no other COVID vaccine or treatment has yet to accomplish—“true revenge” on a virus that has caused so much death and suffering in recent years, says Lipton, who is also professor of neurosciences and neurology at the University of San Diego School of Medicine and the Yale School of Medicine.

A peer-reviewed study by Lipton and his team published Sept. 29 in Nature Chemical Biology found promising results by using the experimental drug in Syrian golden hamsters, which are extremely susceptible to COVID and are considered the gold standard in testing potential therapeutics.

The study also found that, in hamsters, the drug “virtually eliminated” large hemorrhages in the lungs often sometimes seen when COVID fatalities are autopsied. It also significantly reduced inflammatory response in hamsters that took it, as compared to hamsters that did not. 

What’s more, NMT5 was found to be highly effective against COVID variants Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron. It reduced the ability of the virus to replicate in the host and transmit to others by up to 95%, the study states.

Yet another bonus: In addition to being taken in pill form, the drug can also be inhaled, meaning it can immediately diffuse to the lungs and nasal passages, where the virus enters the body, ideally preventing further spread.

Because NMT5 is a combination of two FDA-approved drugs—memantine and nitroglycerine—it’s likely to be safe, Lipton says, though it will still need to undergo an FDA review. He hopes that human trials can begin in the next few months—a year at most. If approved by the FDA, the drug would enter the market sometime shortly thereafter.

He’s under no illusion that the drug will end the pandemic, even in a best-case scenario. But it could serve as a new tool against the virus—one that, when paired with improved boosters, could eventually tame the raging virus.

“The beauty of this new drug is that it’s totally novel,” Lipton said about the drug that started as a treatment for the flu before being morphed into an Alzheimer’s drug—and now, perhaps, the latest weapon against COVID. 

“We took an antiviral drug and made it better for the brain, then made it better against the virus. What could be a cooler story than that?”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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