Sometime in mid-January, the staff at Ichilov Medical Center in Tel Aviv started to realize that they were on to something. A drug developed by Dr. Nadir Arber, head of the hospital’s Integrated Center for Cancer Prevention, really did seem to have a dramatic effect on patients most severely impacted by the coronavirus. It actually cured them, and quickly too.
One of the people now recovering as a result of the experimental drug is a woman from Tel Aviv. She told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that she received the first coronavirus vaccine shot in December, but shortly after she started to feel ill. According to her, she was infected by her husband, who was himself infected during an open-air prayer service. Her health deteriorated rapidly, and she was admitted to Ichilov. She already suffered from asthma, so by the time she was moved to the intensive care unit, she was already in critical condition. The hospital then offered her family a chance to participate in a study involving an experimental drug, administered by an inhaler, identical to the one used by asthma patients. She said that shorly after she started feeling much better and was sent home three weeks later. While she still requires oxygen, the speed of her overall recovery has been remarkable.
On Feb. 4, Ichilov released the results of its study. They found that the new drug had cured 96% of all those who had received it during the first, experimental stage, involving 30 coronavirus patients, most of them critically ill. Of these, 29 recovered from the virus in 3-5 days.
The drug, known as EXO-CD24, is based on a protein used in cancer research. This protein affects the immune system, which attacks itself in the second stage of the COVID-19 infection, causing severe respiratory problems. The CD24 protein is introduced to the body through the inhalation of exosomes — stable nanovesicles that transport bioactive molecules to target cells — which release it into the lungs. After being inhaled for a few minutes, the protein calms the immune system and causes it to stop attacking itself. This provides considerable relief to the patient.
A statement released by the hospital quotes Arber as saying, “Even if the vaccines do what they are supposed to, and even if no new mutations are produced, then still, in one way or another, the coronavirus will remain with us. That is why we developed this unique new drug. It took half a year from when we first came up with the idea and developed the necessary technology to when it was first tested on humans, with a brief clinical pause. The formula is administered locally, but it works throughout the body with no adverse side effects. It is an advanced formula, which can be manufactured quickly and efficiently at very low cost at any pharmaceutical facility in Israel to meet global demand in a very short time. The first stage in our research was successful. The drug is completely safe and effective, and it provides immediate relief to patients. We have already been flooded with phone calls about it from all around the world, and are now awaiting the next stage of our research.”
Dr. Shiran Shapira, who manages the lab where the drug was developed, said in a radio interview with Kan public broadcast station that it should be effective regardless of the particular variant of the virus or any new mutations. “What makes our drug unique is that it does not attack the virus directly. Instead, it focuses on the immune system, which starts going berserk. For that reason, it makes no difference what particular mutation the patient has.”
Once the drug has been thoroughly investigated by Israel’s regulatory authority and the results of the test have undergone scientific scrutiny, testing will be expanded to a larger sample. It will then be given to thousands more patients, including subjects from a second country. Should the drug prove itself in this advanced testing regimen, and if there are no unanticipated delays, it should receive approval by late summer in an expedited, emergency process.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Feb. 8 with Arber. Impressed with the medical results, Netanyahu said, "If this succeeds, it will be huge, simply huge. This is of global significance. … If you need anything, say it and we will help you. This little thing could change the fate of humanity."
Shortly after that meeting, Netanyahu met with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and raised with him the possibility that Greek hospitals would participate in the mass testing stage. During a joint press conference with Mitsotakis, Netanyahu took out of his pocket a vial that contained the new treatment. “If you’re infected by corona and are seriously ill and have a lung problem, take this, inhale it and you come out feeling good,” he said enthusiastically.
Ichilov is not the only place in Israel where coronavirus drugs are being tested. At least five other research centers and pharmaceutical companies are developing drugs of their own. RedHill Biopharma and Pluristem are already in the second stage of testing, while Enlivex Therapeutics is in talks with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to oversee its research and experiments.
Enlivex is testing its drug, Allocetra, at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Heading the experiment is Dr. Dror Mevorach. This drug is based on healthy cells, which are treated in a laboratory before they are injected into the patient. In most cases, they get the most severe respiratory symptoms of the disease under control quickly by boosting the body’s immune system. It is a method already used on patients who have had a bone marrow transplant or life-threatening sepsis. Mevorach reports that of 21 patients with severe or critical cases of the coronavirus, who were treated with Allocetra, 19 have recovered completely, while the remaining two are in different stages of remission. This study is still analyzing its findings before submitting a report to the Ministry of Health, before it can proceed to more advanced testing.
Enlivex has announced that it would be approaching the European regulatory body for approval of the drug, rather than the FDA. According to Enlivex CEO Shai Novik, this is because in Europe, when dealing with an especially lethal disease, life-saving drugs are approved after the second stage of testing, provided that it involves a control group. He said, “If we succeed in this experiment and receive approval at that stage, we will conduct a comprehensive test study across Europe. Then we will take our results to the United States.”