Old drug, new tricks?
May 12, 2020

As a population, two viable options are presented for us to escape our virus-inflicted confinement: gain herd immunity or find a vaccine. The former is a perilous tactic, that carries the risk of many more fatalities and no guarantee of immunity post-infection. The latter, a race within the pharmaceutical industry to find a vaccine for COVID-19. All whilst the public look on seeking progress, that in all likelihood won’t come within this calendar year.

But what if we are already sitting on the drug that can offset the effects of this virus? Interest is rising within the medical community surrounding the use of existing drugs to treat the novel coronavirus. The symptoms of this illness are severe but not unique, therefore, it is plausible that a repurposed drug could effectively quash the virus and suppress the symptoms experienced.

Using existing drugs in different, unintended therapy areas is no new proposition. A well known example of which is sildenafil citrate. This drug was originally designed to treat high blood pressure yet is now universally known as Viagra, the erectile dysfunction medicine. Exploring other uses of medicines can result in the bypass of significant obstacles that exist in the traditional roadmap of a drug’s development. Reduced research time and lesser extent of clinical trials brings the costs of these treatments down. Furthermore, repurposed drugs can reveal new targets and pathways to be explored and provide options for those with rare diseases that simply would not have existed otherwise.

However, as much as this may seem a promising option for the treatment of COVID-19, we must err on the side of caution when following this strategy. The complexity of the human body means that although the initial patient group could use a drug safely, the rest of the population may not react in the same way.

All in all, it is perhaps not a surprise that we have turned to look at drug repurposing amidst this pandemic. It is certainly within the realms of possibility that there is a pre-existing drug that could counteract the effects of this virus. Let’s hope that in this digital era we can use the tools we have available – such as artificial intelligence and data science – to find and evaluate possible solutions, whether it be a vaccine, repurposed drug or otherwise.

 

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