Dutch cancer drug tested as a corona pill

15 April 2020

A cancer drug developed in the Netherlands may play a role in combating the corona crisis. There is first evidence that the drug called Calquence is also effective against Covid-19. The pharmacy group AstraZeneca will now test the drug on 400 patients, in a study that has been set up in a hurry.

This announcement is one of the most surprising developments to date in the global search for a drug that could stop the corona pandemic.

Prominent role

The search also runs in several other places in the Netherlands. For example, the Dutch company Viroclinics from Schaijk appears to be testing a corona vaccine on animals. The vaccine was developed by the Australian University of Queensland. Earlier, much attention was paid to the pharmaceutical company Janssen, which is working on a corona vaccine in Leiden that can probably be tested on humans in September. Janssen is a subsidiary of the American pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson.

AstraZeneca's cancer medicine Calquence was originally developed by the Dutch biotech company Acerta from Oss. The British-Swedish pharmaceutical group bought a majority stake in Acerta for $4 billion in 2015, thereby acquiring the rights to Calquence. Depending on the success of the drug, that amount can add up to $7 billion.

Tempering excessive immune response

An advantage of using existing drugs against Covid-19 is that these drugs are available much faster than new drugs. Calquence (substance name: acalabrutinib) is a so-called BTK inhibitor that has been developed for the fight against blood cancers. The agent acts on the immune system. It may dampen an excessive immune response - the so-called cytokine storm - that many patients with severe Covid-19 experience.

AstraZeneca decided to start the study after findings from the National Cancer Institute. This U.S. government agency had noticed in recent weeks that a small number of Covid-19 patients appear to benefit from Calquence. The British-Swedish pharmaceutical group then made a research plan in three days, a record time for the company.

Testing

The Dutch bioscience company Viroclinics will test the Australian vaccine on ferrets, hamsters and rabbits, animals that are also sensitive to the coronavirus. The Brabant company is one of the few companies in the world with adequate facilities and expertise to test a vaccine. Tests in mice, which have already been performed in Australia, have already yielded positive results.

If the new tests at Viroclinics are also successful, the University of Queensland wants to start vaccinating test subjects in July. In the most favorable scenario, the vaccine could become available by the end of this year, first of all for medical personnel.

Extra capacity released

The Australian vaccine is internationally recognized as one of the most important initiatives to develop a preventive drug. At the beginning of last year - twelve months before the coronavirus broke out - the University of Queensland had already won an important assignment for the rapid development of vaccines in an emergency.

Viroclinics has released additional capacity to test vaccines and drugs that may be effective against Covid-19. "We have postponed other investigations in consultation with customers." says CEO Hans Bunschoten of the company. Viroclinics has 250 employees. The Australian vaccine arrived on Friday with a special transport flight.