Eli Lilly is teaching an old drug technology new tricks against COVID—and has promising early results

Good afternoon, readers.

Antibodies are interesting entities. These Y-shaped proteins occur naturally in the human body to fight off various ailments. But they can also be man-made, as is the case for “monoclonal antibodies,” by inducing immune responses in either animals or patients.

Those little things (also known as mAbs for short) have been around for more than 30 years and are currently used for treating cancer and as immunosuppresive therapy for transplant patients. The world’s best-selling drug, AbbVie’s Humira, is itself a monoclonal antibody.

The fight against COVID has forced the drug industry to get creative with repurposing treatments, or existing pharmaceutical technologies spanning the gamut from older infectious disease drugs to cheap steroids, to see if they can make a dent on the coronavirus. Monoclonal antibodies are also a part of that pharmaceutical equation. And there’s now preliminary evidence that it’s a process which may work.

Indianapolis-based drug giant Eli Lilly announced this week that its own experimental monoclonal antibody, created by reproducing the antibodies of people who have recovered from COVID, significantly slashed diagnosed patients’ need for hospitalization.

Now, the company’s statement doesn’t come with significant data beyond the topline, so it will still have to go through the scientific peer review process. But Lilly claims that about 6 percent of diagnosed coronavirus patients who received placebo had to be hospitalized, whereas just 1.7 percent of those receiving the real drug had to. If the numbers hold, that’s a success that other companies testing their own mAbs haven’t seen to date.

It all goes to show that in the pharmaceutical business, treatments can work in mysterious ways.

Read on for the day’s news, and see you again next week.

Sy Mukherjee


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