KI researchers studied baricitinib as possible COVID treatment – gets green light from WHO
WHO experts are now recommending using the drug baricitinib to treat severe COVID-19 infection. Researchers at Karolinska Institutet were involved in the early analysis of the drug’s efficacy against the disease: “I myself would’ve benefited from it when I got COVID-19,” says adjunct professor Ali Mirazimi.
What does it mean for the WHO to have approved baricitinib?
Volker Lauschke, senior researcher at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Karolinska Institutet, and assistant director at the Bosch Institute of Clinical Pharmacology in Stuttgart, Germany: “The drug was approved by the FDA in the USA in 2021 but is still not approved by its European counterpart, the EMA. I believe that the WHO recommendation sends out a positive signal that will before long lead to its approval in Europe. When it comes to countries where there aren’t such stringent drug regulatory authorities, I think that the recommendation will be of huge significance.”
How can the drug help patients?
Adjunct professor Ali Mirazimi at the Department of Laboratory Medicine, Karolinska Institutet: “The substance can be given at a later stage of the disease to people who have a medium to severe infection. Cortisone is also used in these cases, but not until doctors are certain that all the virus has been eliminated, otherwise patients can get much worse. So it’s a good complement that will save more lives. It’s not a miracle cure, but it reduces mortality by up to 70 per cent as well as the number of days spent in hospital.”
What role has KI played in this process?
Volker Lauschke: “We studied baricitinib in the early stages of the pandemic by combining three-dimensional mini-organs of human liver and lung cells, RNA sequencing and high-resolution microscopy, and found that the drug both reduces inflammation and blocks the virus’s ability to enter cells. Our results provided support for the continuing development of the drug, which was then manufactured by the drug company.”
The drug has been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and was picked up as a possible COVID drug candidate by artificial intelligence in a study you did with colleagues at Benevolent AI and Imperial College, London.
How often is AI used to find new drugs?
Ali Mirazimi: “It’s a relatively new approach that we’ll be seeing a lot more of. COVID-19 is a good model disease since it has infected so many people and thereby given us a large volume of patient data to analyse, which makes our conclusions more certain.”
The process of finding new drugs can be very lengthy, but this time things went relatively quickly – is that so?
Volker Lauschke: “Patients suffering from COVID-19 might well think that the process has been slow, but in actual fact it’s been fast from a drug development perspective. All stages of development have to be carefully followed so that we know that the drug is safe and effective. But during the pandemic, everything has gone more quickly because it’s important – prioritisation and collaboration has made it possible. I hope that this will serve as a catalyst and that scientists now understand, for example, that the 3D model we’ve used to study this drug also works for finding drugs for other diseases, and speeds up their development too.”
How can we be sure that the drug is safe when the approval process has been so quick?
Volker Lauschke: “Well, in this particular case the drug was already in use for another disease, rheumatoid arthritis, so there’s lots of safety data, even for chronic long-term use.”
Ali Mirazimi, you were yourself hospitalised for a few days with severe COVID in 2020. Would you have benefited from baricitinib?
Ali Mirazimi: “I think it would’ve suited my condition at the time and I would probably have recovered much more quickly if I’d received it. It’s fantastic that the drug will become available to more patients and that we helped to make it happen.”
Footnote: At the time of publication, baricitinib is still not approved for use in Sweden.