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AstraZeneca cancer drug found ineffective for COVID-19

AstraZeneca’s blood cancer treatment Calquence proved ineffective in treating COVID-19 patients hospitalized with respiratory complications in two clinical trials, according to the British drugmaker.

The mid-stage trials tested whether Calquence could help keep people gravely ill with COVID-19 from dying or respiratory failure. Despite preclinical evidence suggesting a benefit to the drug, the studies found treatment led to no improvement for patients in the trials.

Data from the study will be detailed “in due course,” AstraZeneca said in a Nov. 12 statement. The company emphasized that the research in COVID-19 patients showed no new safety issues and won’t affect existing or pending approvals for the cancer medicine.

The results, coming on the heels of similar failures from several other companies, dim hopes for one avenue of COVID-19 treatment that seemed promising a few months ago.

Researchers have theorized that some COVID-19 patients suffer from “cytokine storms,” in which immune systems end up attacking the body after getting revving up to fight off the coronavirus. Those patients can suffer organ damage, respiratory distress and death.

AstraZeneca and other companies bet that some of their existing medicines could calm the overactive immune systems and thwart the potentially deadly later stages of the disease. Novartis tested the theory with its anti-inflammatory medicine canakinumab but also failed to find a significant improvement; Sanofi in September gave up on trials of its arthritis drug Kevzara in COVID-19 patients.

Calquence works differently than either of those drugs.

The failure of several studies, though, suggest the complications may be triggered through a different process in the body, or through several pathways at once.

AstraZeneca called its results “disappointing” but said it’s committed to continuing the fight against the pandemic. The company is in advanced stages of developing a vaccine along with the University of Oxford and recently highlighted a long-acting antibody combination that it progressed into Phase 3 trials.