Researchers at Hackensack Meridian Health are touting the drug tocilizumab as a treatment for critically ill COVID-19 patients in the ICU.
Observational data of hospitalized COVID-19 patients shows that tocilizumab, generally used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and cancer, improves hospital survival in the critically ill ICU patients, according to a news release.
The researchers published results in The Lancet Rheumatology last week and subsequently updated the FDA and other national leaders with information from the observations in an effort to potentially accelerate improved outcomes.
A total of 630 patients admitted to the ICUs of 13 Hackensack Meridian Health hospitals between March 1 and April 22 (the height of the pandemic in New Jersey) were observed. Tocilizumab was considered for off-label usage in patients whose respiratory symptoms were declining, many of whom required mechanical ventilator support. In the study, 210 patients received the drug, while the remaining 420 did not.
Researchers say tocilizumab, as a monoclonal antibody that binds and blocks the interleukin (IL)-6 receptor and dampers the inflammatory response. Having observed COVID-19’s phases and seen that the immune system secretes numerous cytokines, including IL-6, they rationalized trying the drug in the COVID-19 patients.
They found that tocilizumab produced a statistically significant decrease in hospital-related deaths among the patients who received it, with an approximately 36% decrease in hospital-related mortality among ICU patients who got the drug compared to those who did not. Data was adjusted to account fro multiple factors, including comorbidities.
According to the researchers, they also found that higher levels of a blood test marker of inflammation, C-reactive protein, could predict which ICU patients might benefit most from the tocilizumab therapy.
“Our clinicians and researchers at Hackensack Meridian Health have moved quickly and intelligently since the start of this global health crisis,” Hackensack Meridian Health CEO Robert Garrett said in the news release. “Their work in treating this terrible virus, and learning more about it each day, continues to benefit thousands of patients as the pandemic continues.”
The researchers stressed that the results are observational and not yet fully proven, as a multinational Phase 3 clinical trial of tocilizumab is currently underway.
“We need to know more as soon as possible,” chief of the division of outcomes & value research at John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center Dr. Stuart Goldberg said. “Our database has allowed us to rapidly expand our knowledge of COVID-19 throughout the Hackensack Meridian Health hospital network. We are moving fast to help guide interventions – and potentially save lives.”