A combination of steroids and anti-viral drugs offers a promising treatment for SARS, the virus that killed about 800 people this year and infected thousands worldwide, Canadian researchers said on Tuesday.
Preliminary results of a clinical study of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome patients show “major potential” for the treatment, they said.
The study, led by a team of Canada’s top researchers, will be published in the Dec. 24 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“These results have the potential to have global impact on the way future SARS patients are treated,” said Eleanor Fish, the study’s lead author and a professor of immunology at the University of Toronto.
The study of 22 probable SARS patients in Toronto was conducted between April and May, in the midst of two deadly SARS outbreaks in the Toronto area that claimed 44 lives.
Better response to combination treatment
The study was designed to test the benefits and safety of using immune-system-boosting interferons as a SARS treatment.
It found that SARS patients treated with a combination of interferons and steroids responded better to treatment and recovered faster than those given only steroids.
“In fact many of the SARS symptoms, including respiratory and lung abnormalities, cleared up in a very short period. The study also found no side effects to the patients,” researchers said.
The flu-like SARS virus, believed to have originated in China, was unknown when it spread around the world earlier this year. It floated undetected in Canadian hospitals for weeks, infecting health care workers before the alarm was sounded.
Canada was the only region outside Asia to report SARS deaths.
Before SARS was identified, respiratory diseases were normally treated with anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids.
But to lessen the lung inflammation, steroids must suppress the immune system, which allowed the SARS virus to spread.
“Rather than treating the symptoms, it seemed more appropriate to aggressively treat the virus infection,” Fish said. “The very first thing our body does when a virus touches a cell, it makes interferon.”
Interferons are naturally made proteins. They boost the body’s immune system so that it can better battle viral infections.
“If the virus multiples very rapidly, then perhaps we’re unable to mount the sufficient interferon response,” Fish said.
“That was the case with SARS...so then it’s really appropriate to come in and supplement the interferon response and that’s what we attempted to do.”
Among patients given both drugs, there was less need for intensive care and ventilators.
The World Health Organization declared the SARS outbreak over in July but a case in Taiwan sparked alarm last week.
A Taiwanese scientist, who likely contracted the disease after a laboratory accident in early December, tested positive for the virus last week and is in stable condition.