Heparin, a widely available and affordable drug, has found to limit lung damage when inhaled by COVID-19 patients.
The world-first findings by researchers from The Australian National University with King’s is published today in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.
The researchers are coordinating multiple studies tracking hospital patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 in 13 countries who were given doses of inhaled heparin.
Researchers found breathing and oxygen levels improved in 70% of patients after inhaling a course of heparin. Heparin is unique as it has anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and anti-coagulant effects which are considered relevant for the treatment of patients with COVID-19.
Patients with severe COVID-19 disease develop blood clots in the lungs which can be lethal. Blood thinners, such as Heparin, can prevent such clots from forming. Because the drug has antiviral properties and calms the immune system, it can be used at different stages of treatment. Indeed, treated patients included in the studies were not uniform in their COVID-19 disease severity, which suggests inhaled Heparin is safe and effective to use across the spectrum of COVID-19 disease.
Study lead Professor Frank van Haren, from The Australian National University, said: “This drug is already available in hospitals all over the world and it is a very inexpensive drug. If it is as effective as our early results suggest, it could have a major impact in our fight against COVID.”
Co-author Professor Clive Page, from King’s College London, who is co-leading the global studies, said: “Inhaled heparin has antiviral properties which work by binding to the spike proteins the coronavirus uses to enter the cells of the body. Inhaled heparin effectively stops the virus infecting cells in the lungs and could also stop people from getting the virus from others.
“It also works as an anti-inflammatory drug - the medicine has the ability to calm everything down when the body is mounting an exaggerated response to the virus. We already know heparin can reduce lung damage caused by this inflammation and the immune response overdrive that we see in other lung diseases which could provide benefit to patients hospitalised with COVID-19.
He added: “There is no other drug that has these three different effects - anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and anti-coagulant.”
Heparin is normally administered via injection, however when inhaled the drug shows promise as treatment for COVID-19. The authors will continue to collect evidence that inhaled heparin works as a treatment and prevention for COVID-19.
Professor Frank van Haren added: “Most COVID experts agree that vaccination alone is not going to stop the pandemic. This could really assist in poorer countries where vaccination is challenging and we think it could help front line workers who could use it as a preventative measure.
“Inhaled heparin is a promising new possibility to provide a low-cost, safe and effective treatment for COVID-19 that is available and affordable to low and middle-income countries around the globe.”
British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology
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