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Drug developed by Scripps Research being tested for ability to fight COVID-19

An electron micrograph shows particles of the coronavirus isolated from a patient.
An electron micrograph shows particles of the coronavirus isolated from a patient.
(National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

The anti-inflammatory known as IC14 is headed for clinical trial overseas.

An experimental drug that Scripps Research developed in La Jolla 25 years ago to treat inflammation will be tested for its ability to help COVID-19 patients ward off acute respiratory distress.

Australia-based Implicit Bioscience is exploring whether the drug IC14 can help control inflammation in patients who have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

IC14 is an antibody that was developed by Scripps Research immunologist Richard Ulevitch in conjunction with Johnson & Johnson.

Here, Ulevitch fields questions about the drug:

Q: What is the current status of IC14?

A: Implicit Bioscience is exploring whether it can be used as an injection to block CD14, which is a protein that is important for regulating inflammation resulting from activation of the immune system. The company is in the early stage of clinical trials. The research is being expanded to see if IC14 could help treat COVID-19. It will be given to patients intravenously.

Scripps Research immunologist Richard Ulevitch
(Scripps Research)

Q: Why are scientists looking at IC14 as a possible treatment for COVID-19?

A: They want to see if it can prevent the cytokine storm, which is a general term used to describe the inflammation that occurs in the lungs after infection. The cytokine storms produced by COVID-19 can result in severe pulmonary injury, which is causing many deaths. Think of a faucet being turned on all the way. The water comes out in a blast. The cytokine storm is like that.

Q: Implicit Bioscience is going to test IC14 in 40 patients in Italy, Spain and possibly elsewhere. Why does the trial involve such a small number of people?

A: This is an initial effort to determine whether it would be safe to use the antibody in the setting of a viral infection like this and to look for positive benefits. If the patient outcomes are good, it would go on to a Phase 2 trial, which would likely involve 80 patients — 50 who take the drug and 30 who take the placebo.

This initial Phase 1 trial should be completed by July. A Phase 2 trial would take months. If the drug proved to be really effective, it is possible that the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] would approve it for widespread use without requiring scientists to do a Phase 3 trial, which typically involves hundreds of people.

Q: Do scientists see IC14 as a primary treatment or a secondary one?

A: It would likely be used in combination with other drugs, most likely anti-virals, but still be important. ... There was good news about remdesivir, the experimental anti-viral drug that’s undergoing testing. The idea would be to use something like that as the main drug, and others such as IC14 as secondary. It would be like the “cocktail” drug approach that proved to be so effective against HIV-AIDS.

Q: Do you see a lot of parallels between how scientists found ways to fight HIV-AIDS and how it might successfully fight COVID-19?

A: Yes, in the sense that both HIV-AIDS and COVID-19 were newly emerging viral diseases without treatments or vaccines. In the case of HIV-AIDS, early successes, while not ideal, provided the base to develop highly effective treatments although vaccine efforts are still ongoing. We are starting to see the same pattern now with COVID-19 in terms of mapping out a path to new therapeutics that will be essential until a vaccine emerges. ◆