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Remdesivir: Grasping at Straws!

By Shlomo Maital

     There is a massive amount of fake news circulating now about COVID-19, some of it racist, pernicious and dangerous. There is also well-meaning news, reports that want to bring hope but in fact are simply grasping at straws.

     A report now viral, emanating from the University of Chicago, is about how an anti-viral drug developed by a pharma company, Gilead, has helped seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

     Remdesivir is an antiviral medication; a nucleotide analog, specifically an adenosine analogue, which inserts into viral RNA chains, causing their premature termination. It is being studied during 2020 as a possible post-infection treatment for COVID-19 illness.

A U of Chicago doctor participated in an internal hospital video in which she reported that when seriously ill patients administered remdesivir, many recovered.

The video reached some hospital employees, who leaked it to journalists. That led to a highly optimistic report.

This is not a clinical test. There is no protocol, and no placebo (sugar pill given to some patients).

   The drug, made by Gilead Sciences, was tested against Ebola with little success, but multiple studies in animals showed the drug could both prevent and treat coronaviruses related to Covid-19, including SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).

     We are all desperate for some good news. But grasping at straws is not going to help. The journalists who reported this “scoop” should have told us exactly what the source was, an internal chatty ‘gossip’ video of the kind that circulates in most hospitals.

     The journalist who DID inform us was the CNN medical correspondent, is Elizabeth Cohen, who has serious training and deep scientific knowledge. She has a Master’s degree in public health. Her colleague is Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon; together they comprise “the horse’s mouth” and to mix a metaphor, a horse’s mouth that does NOT grasp at straws.

How to Cure Cancer: Zelig Eshhar and the $12 b. Exit

By Shlomo Maital

Prof. Zelig Eschar

  Last year, I blogged about a remarkable breakthrough in research on fighting leukemia and lymphoma.

“Media reports last week [2016] brought exciting news about a new breakthrough in the fight to cure cancer. Cancer patients received genetically modified T-cells that were equipped with synthetic molecules called chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs. Those T-cells were able to target and destroy the tumor cells – specifically the ones that were responsible for the acute lymphoblastic leukemia the patients were suffering from. According to officials at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where the research was carried out, patients in the trial – some of whom were told in 2013 they had barely a few months to live – not only survived, but now, after the therapy, “have no sign of the disease.”   One of the pioneers of this approach is Prof. Zelig Eshhar, of Israel’s Weizmann Institute. According to press accounts:   “Eshhar has been conducting T-cell research for over a decade, and in 2014 was recognized by leading industry publication Human Gene Therapy for his work, along with Dr. Carl June of the University of Pennsylvania for their work in the field.”

Yesterday brought an interesting postscript, with an Israeli perspective.

    Kite Pharma, a US company founded by an Israeli scientist, Dr. Arie Belldegrun, acquired the patent rights to Eschar’s breakthrough, in a very complicated deal. Now, according to the Wall St. Journal, a biotech company called Gilead (“Balm of Gilead”, from the Bible), with $30 b. in annual revenues, has acquired Kite Pharma, for a staggering $12 billion. And that figure is not overpriced.

   One reason for the high price is that recently Novartis received FDA approval for a similar drug, based on genetically engineering T-cells to recognize and kill cancer cells, this one for leukemia.   Kite and Gilead may soon get FDA approval for their drug aimed at non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

   Belldegrun is a remarkable individual.   He is a Professor at UCLA, a specialist in urological oncology. And at the same time he is a serial, successful entrepreneur, having done several exits (and earned many hundreds of millions of dollars), and is founder of Kite. He recognized the potential of Eschar’s breakthrough and managed a complex deal in which Kite acquired the rights to the patent. Belldegrun studied at Israel’s Weizmann Institute and Hebrew University Medical School, and moved to the US early in his career. He collaborated closely with Dr. Steven Rosenberg, of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

     The new approach to fighting cancer – teaching T-cells how to spot cancer cells, which are cleverly disguised, tear off their disguise and kill them – is highly promising. Kudos to Professor Eschar, Dr. Belldegrun and to those who were early investors in Kite – and profited.


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital