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Imatinib is now used to treat cancer, but it shows promise in treating COVID-19. AP/Shutterstock
  • Researchers say the cancer drug imatinib performed well in a clinical trial involving people with severe COVID-19 cases.
  • They say the drug reduced the recovery time as well as the hospital stays of people who took the medication.
  • Experts say imatinib shows promise in the future treatment of COVID-19.

Treating people with severe COVID-19 with the cancer drug imatinib may lower mortality rates.

Research presented this week at the American Thoracic Society International Conference reported that at a 90-day follow up COVID-19 patients who were treated with the drug had a 7 percent lower mortality rate than those not treated with imatinib.

“In this ongoing pandemic, this could result in lower mortality rates and shorter intensive care admissions,” said Erik Duijvelaar co-first author and MD-PhD candidate at Amsterdam University Medical Centers in the Netherlands, said in a press release.

The research has not been peer-reviewed or published yet.

Imatinib is a cancer drug that works by blocking proteins that encourage cancer cells to grow. It also stops leakage from the small blood vessels in the lungs, which can occur in inflammatory states such as in severe cases of COVID-19.

“One of the aspects of the inflammatory response is that it can disrupt the integrity of blood vessels and lead to leakage. This cancer drug would curtail that aspect of the inflammatory response… If blood vessels are leaking, we can’t easily exchange the gases that are in the blood,” Dr. William Schaffner, an expert in infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told Healthline.

“If the blood vessels become leaky, that will destroy local tissue and makes the gas exchange, the essential function of the lungs, very, very difficult,” he explained.

The researchers examined the impact of imatinib in people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Netherlands.

They conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study and found that severely ill patients who were treated with imatinib needed less supplemental oxygen and required a shorter time on invasive ventilation.

“Those are critical measures. If you’re providing people who have impaired lung function with treatment, you would like to see them need the supplemental oxygen for a shorter period of time. Their residence in the intensive care unit also abbreviated, they can go back out onto the wards. So these are important measures, objective measures of how well this drug is working,” Schaffner said.

The researchers examined the clinical outcomes of 385 people with COVID-19. Some were given imatinib and some weren’t.

At a 90-day follow-up period, 9 percent of people given imatinib had died, compared with 16 percent of people who weren’t given imatinib.

Of those admitted to intensive care units, those treated with imatinib had a median of 84 days without a ventilator compared with 64 days without a ventilator in those in the placebo group.

The imatinib patients had a median duration of 7 days on invasive ventilation, compared with 12 days in the placebo group.

The researchers also found that the imatinib group had a median of 9 days stay in ICU, compared with 13 in the placebo group.

Dr. Thomas Lew is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Stanford University in California.

He says the results of the study sound promising.

“From sharing that preliminary results, it does sound very exciting to be able to use a drug that we already know,” Lew told Healthline.

He noted imatinib already has a “proven track record.”

“We know what the side effects are, we know… tolerability levels, how much to use and… how much can be used before it becomes toxic,” Lew said.

The researchers say that if other studies confirm their findings, imatinib could play a significant role in treating COVID-19.

Schaffner says the research is another positive move forward for treating people with COVID-19 and getting them released from the hospital.

“This is another example of the success stories that we hear about insufficiently… when it comes to COVID,” Schaffner said.

“We’re all struggling with COVID and how it presents and everything. But it’s remarkable that around the world, we have learned so much that’s so beneficial, so quickly,” he added. “We are much better, I would say vastly better at taking really good care of seriously ill patients and getting them out of the hospital in a functional status. This is another step in that direction.”