NeuroRX on the cusp of releasing a life-saving COVID-19 treatment

"The DNA of our company is to go after lost causes with known molecules,” NeuroRX CEO Prof. Jonathan Javitt told the ‘Post.’

Ichilov Medical team at the coronavirus unit, in the Ichilov hospital, Tel Aviv, Israel, July 28, 2020. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Ichilov Medical team at the coronavirus unit, in the Ichilov hospital, Tel Aviv, Israel, July 28, 2020.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
The COVID-19 virus has special protein “keys” on its surface that enable it to “unlock” Alveolar Type II cells in the lungs. These are the spikes that make the coronavirus’s “crown.” Once in, these cells stop releasing a fatty substance (pulmonary surfactant) needed to keep healthy lungs from collapsing. This is why patients infected with the virus suffer lung failure and need to be intubated.
“We are so used to thinking of oxygen as a good thing, that we fail to realize it is a difficult gas to work with,” NeuroRX CEO Prof. Jonathan Javitt told The Jerusalem Post. “Oxygen causes rust. In evolutionary terms, when the first life forms left the sea to begin life on land, they had to keep their lungs moist on the inside so that the gas they were breathing would not harm the delicate cells.”
Javitt and his team of scientists have been able to synthesize Aviptadil, a man-made version of human Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide (VIP). This peptide is essential for the healthy operation of Type II cells. Its discovery is a complex and fascinating story involving Middle East politics, Jewish history and how drug companies work.
NeuroRX CEO Prof. Jonathan Javitt (Credit: Alon Ron)NeuroRX CEO Prof. Jonathan Javitt (Credit: Alon Ron)
Due to the pandemic, the FDA allowed Javitt to test Aviptadil in record time – and the results so far have been encouraging. The company will submit statistical data to the FDA this week.
The new drug seems able to block the reproduction of COVID-19, prevent Type II cells death and stimulate the production of white blood cells. These, in turn, secrete chemicals that help protect Type II cells from the novel coronavirus.
Doctors at three different testing sites reported to Javitt that “we’re seeing the X-ray results from patients’ lungs and the results showed rapid recovery in the blinded study," he said.
It should be noted that these patients were near-death during the time the drug was administered. Meaning Aviptadil can’t prevent a person from becoming infected, but it could help save countless lives.
A Brazilian study found that patients who survive COVID-19 have twice the normal amount of VIP in their blood when compared to those who die from it. This is why NeuroRX began studies to see if it might be able to help patients who are in earlier stages of the disease.
VIP isn’t a new thing. In fact, Javitt reflected on the irony that part of the VIP story is tied to the persecution experienced by the Coptic community in Egypt in the 1950s, which led to a young Coptic medical doctor, Dr. Sami Said, to leave his country for the US. Said discovered VIP – which also exists in intestines – in the 1980s, and nothing much came of it.
“Drug companies at the time weren’t interested in a peptide that is produced naturally, so you can’t patent it,” Javitt said. “And while now it seems crucial, from the commercial viewpoint at the time, a drug that people only need for a few days isn’t lucrative to develop.”
Javitt knows a lot about public health policy because one of his professors chided him when he heard that the young medical student was going to India to help cure patients with glaucoma.
“All you’ll be doing is helping a blind beggar see,” the thoughtless man told Javitt.
Enraged, Javitt conducted a study that proved that restoring eyesight to Indian patients with the eye disease increased their family earnings by 1,500%. The patient, now able to see, was able to work – and the pressure on his family to care for him was lifted, helping the entire family advance in life.
The study triggered his life-long passion for public health policy. In the early 2000s, he helped shape the policy of the World Bank Group, which invested billions of dollars into medical infrastructure to treat blinding eye diseases.
During the interview, Javitt returned to the success of Jewish efforts in wearing down Soviet resistance to the emigration of Jewish persons from the USSR as a key example of how, with time, even unlikely ideas can become world-changing realities.
He said he learned about that power from his parents and grandparents and recounts that one of his mother’s fondest memories is when her father took her to listen to Menachem Begin speak in New York in the early 1940s, at a time when few people believed they would see the creation of Israel.
“The DNA of our company is to go after lost causes with known molecules,” he said.
In this way “we help cases the pharmaceutical companies aren’t focused on.”