Since the 1980s it has been the big bet of Cuban medicine, but now a company in Southampton (UK) has been ahead of them by giving one of the best latest news
After several clinical trials for COVID-19 treatments with disappointing results, a timid but hopeful ray of light has appeared in the last week from the place where it was least expected. In addition to promising news from the Oxford vaccine, for the first time, the treatment seems to make a difference in a clinical trial.
Interferon alfa-2b had already appeared at the beginning of the pandemic when in the middle of the darkness a myriad of treatments were offered as possible solutions to the unknown virus. This particular one had in advance a backpack of suspicion for its Caribbean origin.
The Cuban doctor Luis Herrera, creator of the Heberon Alfa R, the first drug to use this antiviral compound, gave a series of interviews in the Latin American field promoting the virtues of interferon alfa-2b. “The name comes from interfering with the multiplication of the virus,” he explained to Telesur’s cameras in mid-March.
It should be noted that the WHO included another type of interferon, beta, in its international Solidarity trial, which tested the treatments that were most promising at the time: remdesivir, chloroquine or its derivatives, and the antiviral lopinavir/ ritonavir, combined with interferon. None of these treatments has been definitive and several of these lines of research, such as chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, have been abandoned.
Interferon alfa-2b seemed to follow the same fate. Soon he was caught up in news such as “the Cuban treatment that saves lives in China and the world wants to hide.” Already on February 6, the newspaper ‘Granma’ spoke of “palpable results in the cure of more than 1,500 patients.” Once the fact-checkers came into play and punctured the bubble, the drug’s name stopped being read so often.
However, now a new twist has put interferon alpha-2b back in the top positions of hope. Last week, a British company called Synairgen revealed the first results of a clinical trial it is conducting. The chance that the disease would worsen — to the point of requiring ventilation — in those patients who were given interferon was markedly reduced compared to those who did not take it.
“The phase II double-blind placebo-controlled trial SG016 recruited 101 patients from 9 hospitals in the UK between March 30 and May 27, 2020, and found that patients who received SNG001 had a 79% lower risk of developing serious illness compared to placebo,” the company says in a statement. “Additionally, patients who received SNG001 were more than twice as likely to recover from covid-19 than those who received placebo.”
The compound has been used with different cancers for its ability to reduce the proliferation of malignant cells. The key here is that English scientists nebulized it with an inhaler instead of tablets, suppositories, ointment, or nasal drops as usual. In this way, interferon alfa-2b reaches the lungs and stimulates an immune response directly from there.
The remedy that came from Cuba
Basically, our cells produce interferon – of four types, alpha, beta, gamma and omega – to incorporate it into the first line of defense against a threat. The idea behind the treatment is precisely to increase the number of soldiers in a weakened organism.
Molecular biologist Charles Weissman was the first to sequence interferon alfa-2b in 1980. Following this discovery, made in Zurich, Fidel Castro put his best men on the trail of the miraculous remedy for its implications against cancer.
What happened next is worthy of a movie. Six Cuban scientists touring the world, from the MD Anderson hospital in Texas to the Finnish laboratory of Kari Cantell, another parent of interferons, who he says in his memoirs locked their freezers, fearing that those doctors would steal his precious medicine. The rumor that ran then was that Fidel had cancer and hence the rush.
Herrera was not among them, but he was key in the development of the Heberon Alfa R. Back then, the only way to synthesize interferon alfa-2b was using leukocytes from donated blood from healthy patients. It was impossible to climb. So Herrera, who was an expert in genetic manipulation, was sent to France to learn about recombination (how to clone interferon genes to mass-produce it) and returned to Cuba to shine a light on the successful drug for the first time at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, an institution created practically expressly to produce it.
The first obtaining of leukocytes from human blood in Cuba was achieved in just five months, and since then all research with these compounds has been considered a scientific feat for Cuban medicine. The arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus reactivated the research lines of interferon … but it never occurred to anybody to nebulize it.
Caution at the moment
Following this picturesque story about interferon alfa-2a, now comes the jug of cold water. First of all, you have to keep in mind that the English are as enthusiastic as Cubans when it comes to advertising medicines in development. The clinical trial has not yet been published in a scientific journal and the low number of participants (of the 101, only half used the nebulized medicine) indicates that it is advisable to be cautious at the moment.
There are some studies that support the theory, for example, this one in which Chinese researchers used nasal drops of the substance and, obviously, ‘in vitro’ studies although these do not reveal too much. The true efficacy of interferon alfa-2b against COVID-19 remains to be seen in a larger clinical trial, although the market has grown impatient and currently the company’s actions – which holds the patent for the nebulized version of the product – have Gained from 36 to 224 pounds in one week. That is a 522% increase.
There are real possibilities that interferon alfa-2b, which is approved in its injection format in many countries, will become in the short term the most promising drug for that phase of the disease in which the infection is not yet very severe. Switzerland saw him born, Finland nursed him, Cuba raised him and glossed his exploits throughout his life, but now a small company from Southampton can beat them the race in the last corner.