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David Fajgenbaum is leading the study on repurposing drugs in order to treat coronavirus patients.  (Photo from David Fajgenbaum)

Penn researchers are studying how drugs that are typically prescribed for other diseases may also be used to treat coronavirus patients. 

Perelman School of Medicine Assistant Professor of Medicine David Fajgenbaum, who is leading the drug repurposing efforts, said doctors across the world have treated coronavirus patients with over 150 drugs so far. Fajgenbaum said he began studying the effectiveness of these drugs on March 13, with researchers from Penn’s Center for Cytokine Storm Treatment & Laboratory, the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network, which is his independent foundation, and the Medical School.

“It's a tremendous amount of work that's gone into it, and a lot of things have been tried,” Fajgenbaum said. “Many of them have not worked, but some of them have seemed to have promising results. That's helped us to feel confident that this is an important service to be able to track what's being used.”

The project began with 10 researchers reading approximately 1,000 scientific papers, and has now expanded to around 40 people reading over 8,000 papers. The team reads papers published on PubMed, an online database for biomedical literature, and looks for case reports documenting treatments for patients suffering from coronavirus and other diseases. The team then studies whether or not patients’ conditions improved after the treatment. 

Fajgenbaum said the team has not found specific or concrete results yet, but has made progress in its research.

“We’ve found drugs that look promising, and are getting it out to the world, but I think we need to continue to do this work,” Fajgenbaum said.

Fajgenbaum primarily studies Castleman disease, an immune system disorder that he became ill with while he was a student at the Medical School. After being diagnosed, Fajgenbaum said he helped find the drug that is now saving his life. 

“I've scientifically gone through the same process of trying to figure out what drugs should be tried, and tracked which of those drugs we tried in Castleman disease have been effective,” Fajgenbaum said. “It's a similar sort of process for dealing with coronavirus. I think that is an example where we're really able to apply directly everything we've been doing for the last eight years towards this.”

Fajgenbaum said Castleman disease has many similarities to coronavirus.

“What you experience [with Castleman disease] is almost identical to what you experience if you have a really severe case of coronavirus, so I've physically experienced something very similar to coronavirus,”  Fajgenbaum said. 

Rising College senior Joseph Kakkis is working alongside Fajgenbaum in his coronavirus treatment research.

Kakkis said he has known Fajgenbaum since 2015, when he worked with Fajgenbaum to promote the passage of a bill that would allow doctors to more easily repurpose drugs that would be used to treat other diseases. At Penn, Kakkis worked in Fajgenbaum’s lab on an independent research project until the coronavirus pandemic spread, and his independent research was put on hold.

“David is incredible, in a word,” Kakkis said. “We're in the middle of a pandemic, and this is somebody who's taking their immunosuppressants, essentially, so he is technically an immunocompromised patient.”

Kakkis said he hopes the research team's work on drug repurposing for the coronavirus provides a guide for doctors who are on the ground and need to make quick decisions about treatment. 

“We [don’t] want them having to figure out on the fly what's going to work, what's the latest research, what's working now, what isn't working,” Kakkis said. “We're not working on a coronavirus vaccine, but we're the first line of defense in terms of a short-term fix for treating patients right away.”