A new study has highlighted some similarities between other diseases and COVID-19, using this information to help identify drugs that scientists could repurpose as COVID-19 treatments.

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Scientists have published new research that outlines some common pathological mechanisms between COVID-19 and other diseases.

Furthermore, they have used this information to identify some drugs that it may be possible to repurpose as COVID-19 treatments — with melatonin chief among them.

The study, which now appears in the journal PLOS Biology, lays the groundwork for future randomized controlled studies to confirm the initial findings.

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Although discovering an effective vaccine is crucial in reducing the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists are also researching other medical interventions that may play an important role in bringing it under control.

Finding a treatment that significantly reduces the chance of a person dying if they contract the virus would be a major breakthrough, given that the pandemic has caused over 1.2 million deaths so far.

Much like developing a safe and effective vaccine, however, developing a novel drug to treat COVID-19 is likely to take a considerable amount of time.

As well as identifying an effective molecule to be the basis for the drug, the drug would then need to undergo thorough testing to determine if it would be safe for people across the world to take.

One way around this problem is to turn to previously developed drugs. These have already undergone thorough testing and have approval as having minimal, or at least tolerable, side effects.

If researchers can show a previously developed drug to be effective at treating COVID-19, it may be far quicker to repurpose it for this task. This could potentially save a significant number of lives.

The key challenge is identifying which previously developed drugs are likely to be effective against COVID-19.

In the recent study, the scientists went about this by investigating the mechanisms through which COVID-19 causes harm in the human body. Specifically, they compared these mechanisms with those of several other diseases, looking for similarities.

Identifying these mechanisms is valuable for improving our understanding of how COVID-19 works.

However, it also gives the scientists clues as to which drugs may be effective against COVID-19. If a disease has a similar mechanism of action to COVID-19, it may be that the drugs that treat this disease are also effective against COVID-19.

The scientists used an “integrative network medicine strategy” to compare the mechanisms of action of COVID-19 with those of 64 other diseases.

These diseases belonged to six categories:

  • cancer
  • metabolic
  • autoimmune
  • neurological
  • cardiovascular
  • pulmonary

By creating an “interactome map” of COVID-19’s mechanisms of action, the scientists were able to quantify how similar it was to these other diseases.

For example, the researchers noted that the proteins in sepsis and respiratory distress syndrome, which are two common causes of death in people with COVID-19, had significant connections to proteins in SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19.

For lead study author Dr. Feixiong Cheng, from the Cleveland Clinic’s Genomic Medicine Institute in Ohio, “[t]his signals to us, then, that a drug already approved to treat these respiratory conditions may have some utility in also treating COVID-19 by acting on those shared biological targets.”

After having analyzed the various mechanistic similarities between the diseases and COVID-19, the scientists identified 34 drugs that may be candidates for repurposing as COVID-19 treatments.

To further confirm the potential of these drugs as COVID-19 treatments, the scientists analyzed patient data from the Cleveland Clinic. In these tests, melatonin was the front runner.

After adjusting for age, sex, race, smoking, and other disease comorbidities, the team found that among people tested for SARS-CoV-2, those who took melatonin were 28% less likely to have the infection. For African American people, this figure was 52%.

However, although these results are promising, it is important to remember that they are only initial findings. Other repurposed drugs, such as hydroxychloroquine, showed promise in laboratory tests, but clinical studies are not finding significant effects.

As Dr. Cheng notes, “It is very important to note these findings do not suggest people should start to take melatonin without consulting their physician.”

“Large-scale observational studies and randomized controlled trials are critical to validate the clinical benefit of melatonin for [people] with COVID-19, but we are excited about the associations put forth in this study and the opportunity to further explore them,” he concludes.

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