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By Ludwig Burger
FRANKFURT (Reuters) - GlaxoSmithKline will extend a trial testing an experimental rheumatoid arthritis drug on patients suffering from pneumonia related to COVID-19 to focus on the elderly as it seeks to firm up encouraging findings so far.
A trial started in May last year has shown that the drug known as otilimab helps patients over 70 with severe COVID-19 get off mechanical ventilation or high-flow oxygen support faster, the British drugmaker said on Thursday.
The benefit for younger trial participants was not clear enough to merit further investigation, prompting the re-focus on the elderly in a follow-up trial with a targeted 350 participants.
After 28 days of treatment, 65.1% of elderly patients on otilimab plus standard of care were alive and free of intensive respiratory support, compared to 45.9% of patients who received the standard of care alone, according to the trial results.
Effective COVID-19 treatments are still in high demand as vaccination campaigns are only ramping up gradually and as new variants of the coronavirus spread rapidly.
"Given the profound impact this pandemic is having on the elderly and the encouraging data we are sharing today, we are hopeful this finding will be replicated in the additional cohort," said Christopher Corsico, GSK Senior Vice President Development.
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GSK, which acquired rights to otilimab from German biotech firm Morphosys in 2013, said it expects first results of the extended trial in the third quarter of this year, to be followed by talks with regulators if the initial findings are confirmed.
Many patients with severe COVID-19 suffer from an over-reaction of the immune system known as cytokine storm and GSK aims to reaffirm that the drug, originally designed to fight an autoimmune disease, can help.
Attempts to repurpose existing drugs to rein in an overactive immune system in COVID-19 patients have had mixed results.
AstraZeneca's blood cancer drug Calquence failed to help severely ill COVID-19 patients. Roche's arthritis drug Actemra, in turn, was shown to cut the risk of death among patients hospitalised with severe COVID-19.
GSK, and other drugmakers, are also working on antibody-based drugs that block the virus directly.
GSK has also brought to bear its knowledge on adjuvants, which are efficacy boosters used in many vaccines, working with partners including France's Sanofi.
In addition, it is collaborating with CureVac on a next generation of vaccines that protect against new coronavirus variants.
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(Reporting by Ludwig Burger; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)