Karmanos Cancer Institute Joins Trial for Potential Coronavirus-Fighting Drug

Selinexor is approved to fight cancer, but could slow the virus’ ability to replicate.

The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and the lack of immunity to the disease in humans has sent scientists and doctors scrambling to develop treatments. Now, public health officials are getting creative.

Selinexor is an anti-cancer drug approved to treat several types of cancer. The Karmanos Cancer Institute is joining a clinical trial to evaluate whether the drug is effective in fighting COVID-19. Doctor Jeffrey Zonder will be the study’s principal investigator for Karmanos. He explains why scientists think this drug might work in fighting the effects of COVID-19:

“The mechanism of action of this drug is that it blocks a transporter between the nucleus and the cytoplasm of cells. And in the case of cancer, it blocks the export of tumor suppressor molecules. And so it makes the cells more susceptible to the effects of other chemotherapy agents and itself has a toxic effect on cancer cells. It turns out these transport proteins aren’t only relevant to cancer. Lots of different intracellular events depend on regulated transport or shuttling of these proteins. And so in fact, includes viral replication.”

Click on the audio player to hear Dr. Zonder’s conversation with WDET’s Russ McNamara and read excerpts from the Q&A below, edited for length and clarity.

WDET: What are the side effects with this drug? People are mostly familiar with chemotherapy [as a treatment to cancer]. Are the effects similar?

Dr. Jeffrey Zonder: The main side effects of this drug at the doses used to treat cancer is fatigue and gastrointestinal side effects, which can range from decreased appetite to an upset stomach to diarrhea. And we already know from cancer trials, that reducing the dose has a big impact on the likelihood of those side effects. And in this particular antiviral trial, the doses being used are much lower than even the lowest doses used to treat cancers. So we’re expecting from a GI standpoint for this to be much better tolerated than when we use the same drug to treat cancer. 

How do the mechanics of this drug compare to that of other potential COVID-19 treatments like Remdesivir, which was initially approved to treat ebola?

The mechanism of action is completely different. But like Remdesivir, there is data that suggests that this drug may impact many different types of viral infections, including influenza. So this probably will be a proof of principle study, not just whether or not it can help patients with COVID-19. But I think it would potentially open up you know, all sorts of interesting research in its applicability to other types of viral infections.

How long before we can expect some sort of results from the study?

In this study, after the first 40 patients have been enrolled, there’s going to be an early look at the data to make sure that there’s no negative safety signal related to the drug, that’s when we could potentially have our first glimpse of how active the drug is as well in terms of its antiviral effect. But that’s only a portion of the study. And we won’t have final results probably for several months.

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  • Russ McNamara
    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.