Experts float Roche stroke drug Activase as potential COVID-19 therapy

Roche Genentech
Roche's Genentech unit markets Activase. Researchers suggest the drug might be able to benefit certain COVID-19 patients. (Roche)

As the COVID-19 pandemic swells, experts around the globe are working to determine which existing medicines might help patients experiencing severe illness. Malaria drug chloroquine has gotten a lot of the attention, but now a team suggests a Roche stroke drug is worth exploring. 

In an article in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, authors wrote that tissue plasminogen activator, or Roche’s Activase, might be able to help some patients who need a ventilator but can’t get access. The drug, which won FDA approval in 1987, is used to break up blood clots that cause strokes and heart attacks.

In the U.S., officials have warned over a dire shortage of ventilators as more patients need hospitalization. The American Hospital Association has said that as many as 960,000 patients with COVID-19 might need ventilators. There aren’t near that many ventilators in the U.S., the authors wrote, so other solutions will be needed. 

The exact patient population, dose, route of administration and duration of treatment would need to be determined. Still, the authors figure “the risk of adverse events … is far outweighed by the certainty of death in patients meeting the eligibility criteria for this treatment.” 

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Investigators are already preparing for a compassionate use study in a dozen patients, senior researcher Michael Yaffe told HealthDay. 

"Extraordinary times may call for extraordinary measures," the authors wrote. "If an observational trial of this treatment in the first series of patients is effective and safe, the approach could be readily broadened."

If the drug provides benefit, the approach could help reduce ventilator demand and would leverage the "availability, modest cost, and wide pre-existing clinical familiarity" with the medicine. It might also help prevent some patients' condition from worsening, they wrote.

A spokeswoman for Roche's Genentech unit said the company "provided researchers with an adequate supply of Activase to support their research."

"We commend and support the work of these investigators as they explore this new science to help with the COVID-19 pandemic," she added. "Genentech is hopeful that Activase might be useful for people suffering with more severe cases of COVID-19. We will continue to assess and evaluate the situation as it evolves."

Attention to the drug comes as case counts and deaths from the novel coronavirus swell. As of Friday afternoon, global cases had passed 576,000, and more than 26,000 deaths had been recorded. The U.S. now has the most confirmed cases worldwide. 

RELATED: Novartis, Mylan and Teva to supply tens of millions of chloroquine tablets to fight COVID-19 

Biopharma companies and others are responding by testing existing drugs and advancing new therapies and vaccines. Dozens of projects are underway, but hydroxychloroquine has gotten much of the spotlight thanks to results from a small study in France and consistent praise by President Donald Trump as a potential “game changer.” Pharma companies have committed to supply tens of millions of tablets of the drug even as debate over its efficacy in COVID-19 patients wages on. 

Editor's note: This story was updated with a statement from Genentech.