The Washington University study comes after the University of Virginia School of Medicine determined that the drug, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), may be used to “prevent dangerous overreactions by the immune system.” The drug works to block the reabsorption, or reuptake, of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being, so that more serotonin is available to transmit messages between brain cells.
Washington University plans to conduct a clinical trial to investigate the University of Virginia study’s notion that fluvoxamine can prevent “cytokine storms.”
According to the US National Cancer Institute, a cytokine storm is a “severe immune reaction in which the body releases too many cytokines into the blood too quickly.” Cytokines are large groups of proteins released by cells of the immune system, and cytokine storms can take place following an infection or due to autoimmune conditions.
“Sometimes, a cytokine storm may be severe or life threatening and lead to multiple organ failure,” the Institute warns. Cytokine storms commonly occur in patients with severe COVID-19 infections, and there is some evidence that many novel coronavirus patients die because of a cytokine storm rather than from the virus itself, the Jerusalem Post reported. The storms are believed to destroy healthy lung tissue and result in acute respiratory distress syndrome or failure.
Last year, University of Virginia researchers Alban Gaultier and Dorian A. Rosen found in a study that fluvoxamine could be able to prevent sepsis, a deadly condition which is also a product of the immune system cascading out of control.
“I am excited to see the results from this clinical trial,” Gaultier said about the upcoming Washington University study in a May 12 news release. “If proven effective in decreasing the symptoms of COVID-19, this treatment would be a safe and affordable option for fighting the pandemic. Further, this approach could also be applied to other inflammatory conditions driven by cytokine storms, such as sepsis.”
The Washington University study will be carried out by Dr. Eric J. Lenze and will include 152 COVID-19 patients in Illinois and Missouri. The participants will receive either fluvoxamine or a placebo while quarantined at home and will be asked to measure their oxygen levels and other vital signs to the researchers. They will be provided thermometers, fingertip oxygen sensors and automatic blood pressure monitors.
“Our hope is that by targeting patients who are well enough to be at home, we can give them fluvoxamine and prevent them from getting sicker and needing to go to the hospital,” said co-researcher Dr. Caline Mattar of Washington University’s Division of Infectious Diseases, the release noted.
“Using a psychiatric drug to treat COVID-19 may sound counterintuitive, but it’s no more counterintuitive than using a malaria drug,” Lenze noted. “This drug has been around for decades, so we know how to use it safely. If effective, it could be an ideal drug to repurpose for outpatients with COVID.”