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The Readout Damian Garde & Meghana Keshavan

Scientists strive for an elusive goal: a simple pill to treat Covid-19

Vaccines can prevent Covid-19, and repurposed drugs can help with its deadliest symptoms. But despite a year of breathless breakthroughs, doctors are still waiting for a safe, effective pill that could be given immediately after diagnosis.

The goal, experts said, would be a sort of Tamiflu for Covid-19, something patients could take at the earliest sign of symptoms that would significantly reduce their odds of getting seriously ill. With the rise of worrisome variants and the long road to herd immunity, a cheap, easy, oral treatment for Covid-19 would go a long way toward curbing the crisis.

But crafting new antivirals is "just a damn long pathway," in the words of NIH Director Francis Collins. There are countless ways things could go wrong in the process, but scientists see reason for hope.

Read more.

An ascendant moment for NK cell therapy

Two patients with advanced Hodgkin lymphoma were told their tumors were so resistant to treatment that hospice was their best option. Then, they were enrolled in a clinical trial of a novel immunotherapy that combined so-called natural killer, or NK, cells with a separate antibody that primed the cells to recognize a specific protein signature of the tumors. After treatment, the two patients achieved complete remission.

The new NK cell treatment was developed by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the German drug maker Affimed. Detailed study results are being presented today at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research. And as STAT's Adam Feuerstein reports, the positive data add to a growing body of clinical evidence supporting a new type of tumor-killing immunotherapy centered around “engaged” NK cells.

Read more, and for STAT's full AACR coverage, sign up for our free popup newsletter, delivered each day of the conference.

Are there any right answers when it comes to compassionate use?

What’s next for AstraZeneca? And how does it feel to give someone a Covid-19 vaccine?

We cover all that and more this week on “The Readout LOUD,” STAT’s biotech podcast. First, we discuss the latest in a long series of issues for AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine and the implications for the global pandemic response. Next, we dive into the dilemma over compassionate use, talking to Biogen’s former PR chief about the struggle over whether — and how — desperate patients should be able to access experimental medicines. Finally, we interview a registered nurse in Boston about what it’s like to bring joy, relief, and reassurance to thousands of people by injecting them with Covid-19 vaccines.

Listen here.

Targeted cancer drugs come with hope and hurdles

At a STAT virtual event yesterday, patient advocate Janet Freeman-Daily explained how a gene targeted therapy changed her life when other drugs didn’t control her cancer. “I started that trial in November of 2012 and I have had no evidence of disease ever since, over eight years,” she said. “I'm a big fan of targeted therapy.”

But a panel of patient advocates told STAT’s Eric Boodman that a lot of barriers still exist for making sure that these drugs are matched to the patients who can benefit. One big problem: making sure that doctors know to test for specific mutations in tumors, and to make sure they know how to treat patients when they do. Narjust Duma, an assistant professor of medicine, thoracic oncology, University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center, said she often has to tell physicians they don’t immediately need to call hospice for these patients. “Everybody, almost everyone with lung cancer should get some type of biomarker testing.”

Testing isn’t the last hurdle. Freeman-Daily said sometimes insurance plans don’t cover the academic hospitals where experts who know the most about rare gene variants work, and that the cost of co-payments for these extremely expensive drugs can vary dramatically.

Watch the full conversation.

More reads

  • Digital pharmacy startup Thirty Madison taps former Lilly exec as president. (STAT+)
  • U.S. to ship 85% fewer J&J vaccine doses to states next week. (Reuters)
  • Brazilian judge temporarily suspends pharmaceutical patent extensions amid push to lower drug costs. (STAT+)

Thanks for reading! Until next week,

Friday, April 9, 2021


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