Cytokine storms: This doctor hunting down a COVID-19 treatment the same way he cured his own rare disease

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Credit: David Fajgenbaum

35-year-old associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine [David Fajgenbaum] leads the school’s Center for Cytokine Storm Treatment & Laboratory. For the last few years, he has dedicated his life to studying Castleman disease, a rare condition that nearly claimed his life.

Against epic odds, he found a drug that saved his own life six years ago, by creating a collaborative method for organizing medical research that could be applicable to thousands of human diseases.

But after seeing how the same types of flares of immune-signaling cells, called cytokine storms, kill both Castleman and Covid-19 patients alike, his lab has devoted nearly all of its resources to aiding doctors fighting the pandemic.

During a cytokine storm, the body’s overactive immune response begins to attack its own cells rather than just the virus. When that inflammatory response occurs in Covid-19 patients, cytokines are often the culprit for the severe lung damage, organ failure, blood clots or pneumonia that kills them.

Related article:  How supercomputing is taking on the COVID-19 pandemic

Having personal experience tamping down his own cytokine responses gives him a unique insight.

“I’m alive because of a repurposed drug,” he said.

Now, repurposing old drugs to fight similar symptoms caused by a novel virus has become a global imperative.

“I’m reminded every time I touch the port in my chest of the cytokine storms I had,” he said. “I want so badly to solve (Covid-19) the way I did with Castleman. I have the same sense of urgency.”

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