BALTIMORE (WMAR) — When Johns Hopkins husband and wife researchers started developing a drug to treat inflammation 15 years ago, they had no idea it would become heartbreakingly personal.
They are confident it can help COVID-19 patients, though it’s too late to save some of their family members.
“It’s been especially hard because we think they would have benefited from this therapy,” said Johns Hopkins critical care doctor Sujatha Kannan.
Since the pandemic began, Kannan and her husband have lost four close family members to the virus. Kannan’s parents were visiting family in India, set to return to the U.S. when the pandemic hit.
“The lockdown was pretty severe in India so they couldn’t leave,” said Kannan.
Both got sick with COVID-19. Her mother died in the hospital. Her father recovered enough to return home.
“He was having cardiac and lung complications from it and passed away from that a few months ago,” said Kannan.
Her uncle and her husband’s elderly grandmother also died from COVID earlier this year.
The hardest part for the couple: a treatment they developed that wasn’t initially for COVID might have saved them.
“What my parents had was the same kind of severe inflammation which is what we had started the trial for,” said Kannan.
Kannan does research on neuroinflammation and her husband Kannan Rangaramanujam is a nanomedicine researcher.
For 15 years, they worked to develop a drug called OP-101 to treat inflammation from disorders like ALS.
“We discovered that the nanomedicines that I was working on have a propensity to specifically target inflammatory cells wherever they are,” said Rangaramanujam. “It was a very unusual and extremely practical way to target inflammation that plays a significant role in brain disorders, lung disorders, ocular disorders and cancer.”
Fast forward to 2020, it became clear that severe inflammation was the hallmark of COVID-19, happening not only in the lungs but throughout the body, shutting down multiple critical organs. It’s often the main cause of death and lingering long COVID symptoms.
“It was almost unbelievable was the degree of inflammation that was happening,” said Kannan. “So when this happened, the first thing that struck us was we have this product. We have a therapy that we are obviously looking at one or two organs but then when there’s inflammation that’s happening throughout the body, this therapy could target these cells specifically.”
They wanted to find out if OP- 101 could help. Their startup company through Johns Hopkins called Ashvattha Therapeutics performed a small trial to figure out dosage and it worked stunningly well.
“In all of the doses we tested, we had a pretty impressive improvement in survival,” said Kannan.
They saw that a single dose improved survival over a 30-day period by about 40 percent compared to standard of care.
“Our nanomedicine hounds these rogue inflammatory cells wherever they are and resets them to a normal condition. When you do that, it basically lets the body fight against the virus and recover beautifully,” said Rangaramanujam.
They are waiting on FDA approval for a larger global trial.
It's been a difficult journey for them. Although still grieving, they are more dedicated than ever to their research, in honor of their family.
“If our efforts are successful, that would be the best gift or payback that we can give for all the sacrifices people have made before us,” said Rangaramanujam.
“This is probably what would make them the happiest, if they knew that we were able to help a lot of people,” said Kannan.
Since the therapy focuses on neurological effects, they think ultimately it also could help patients with such disorders as cerebral palsy, ALS, multiple sclerosis (MS), and Rett syndrome.