One-On-One with Dr. George Yancopoulos on Regeneron’s innovative work to treat COVID-19
Many companies in the biotechnology industry are working to find new ways to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. On a recent I AM BIO podcast, BIO CEO Jim Greenwood sat down with Dr. George Yancopoulos, Regeneron’s President, Co-Founder, and Chief Scientific Officer, about how his team is responding and exploring a treatment to prevent the respiratory symptoms those with the virus face. This is a slightly edited and updated snapshot of that conversation.
Greenwood: One of your medicines that seems to be promising is really designed for rheumatoid arthritis: Kevzara. Help us understand why an arthritis drug would come to the fore here.
Yancopoulos: All these people are having breathing problems. They're getting this really bad pneumonitis. It looks like acute respiratory distress syndrome. They're having trouble breathing and they're eventually going on ventilators. I don't think it's the virus maybe that's causing all the damage to the lungs. I think it's that the body is overreacting. It's almost an excess inflammatory reaction, almost like an autoinflammatory reaction of the lung. They said there are auto inflammatory diseases where the body attacks itself. Why don't I take a drug that's really powerful in some of these autoinflammatory diseases, such as an IL-6 inhibitor like Kevzara, and maybe it can help this apparent inflammatory disease of the lung that is being triggered by the virus?
This hypothesis is based on clinical data from studies in China with another IL-6 inhibitor. Our controlled Phase 2/3 study is currently underway to see if this concept works.
Greenwood: When does the body, without the aid of a vaccine, succeed in creating antibodies through its immune system and when does it fail?
Yancopoulos: Every time you are challenged with a pathogen, a bacteria, or a virus - whether it's the flu, polio, chickenpox - your immune system always starts trying to fight it. It depends on how virulent, how serious that infection is in terms of what percentage of the population actually survives. For something like the common cold, almost everybody successfully fights the common cold, gets over it after a few days and it's not a huge challenge. For something like polio, a huge percentage of the population, by the time their immune system controlled it, it had already killed essentially the motor neurons in the spinal cord and people became paralyzed. It's a war. It's a battle between the virus and your immune system.
This is the premise of our second approach against COVID-19, which is utilizing our VelociSuite technologies to create a novel antibody cocktail that would be used as prevention or treatment for the disease.
Greenwood: Let's assume that the data is great. The FDA approves it. How about the capacity to produce it?
Yancopoulos: Right now, we can hopefully treat hundreds of thousands to millions of patients just with not only the existing drugs, but drugs stored and drugs that we can make quickly. This is also another reason why we need to get answers quickly, because we have to be making decisions. We also have to be seeing what's happening with this possible epidemic and how many people are in this situation, because the numbers are going to be a lot worse. We're trying to figure it all out and make the best decisions we can in as short amount of time as possible. We’re actively making plans to maximize production capacity for Kevzara and for the novel antibodies – at risk – since we know that, if they work, demand will be unprecedented. Regeneron is lucky to make all our own drugs in our world-class facilities, so we are able to be flexible here.
But the first thing that we were focusing on is making sure that we get definitive data so we know for sure because this is what everybody's praying for, right? Everybody's praying that if, God forbid, they or their loved ones or their friends are in this position where they're at the high risk of dying, physicians can offer them something that is proven to dramatically increase their chance of success. From your lips to God's ears, let's hope this all works out and let's hope the data is great and let's hope the FDA approves it.
Greenwood: Much of your team has to be at the lab and doing clinical work. How are your folks able to do this lifesaving work in the lab staying safe?
Yancopoulos: Our first priority is to protect the health and safety of our colleagues and ensure the continuity of our business. Currently, it is mandatory for colleagues to work from home if their job allows it. We have taken additional precautionary measures to protect our critical laboratory and manufacturing colleagues whose jobs require they be on site.
We're part of society, like everybody else. We already have family members, friends, friends of friends who have been affected by this. We all know people who are hospitalized or on respirators. We know people who've already died due to this tragic disease. It's gotten personal for all of us. Just like many, if not most, of our projects start with a personal connection. My daughter takes one of the drugs that I personally invented for asthma and atopic dermatitis. My mother had macular degeneration where we have another drug. I take our heart disease drug. We do these things because we're just like everybody else.
For more information on what BIO and our companies are doing to fight COVID-19, visit www.bio.org/coronavirus.