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Does a Japanese medication for heartburn work on corona patients?

Researchers from Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital have received DKK 5 million from the Lundbeck Foundation to test whether a Japanese medication against heartburn can be used to treat the new corona virus (COVID-19).

2020.03.27 | Anne Westh, AUH

Associate Professor Ole Schmeltz Søgaard from the Department of Clinical Medicine hopes that the Japanese medication camostat mesylate can block the virus that causes COVID-19. Photo: Tonny Foghmar, AUH.

Associate Professor Mads Fuglsang Kjølby from the Department of Biomedicine is, together with Ole Schmeltz Søgaard, the first in the world to test the Japanese medication on the corona virus in people. Photo: Tonny Foghmar, AUH.

“Our hope is that the Japanese medication camostat mesylate can directly work against the virus that causes COVID-19 and that it can block the infection,” says Ole Schmeltz Søgaard, who is a medical doctor at the Department of Infectious Diseases at Aarhus University Hospital, and an associate professor at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University.

He is part of a research group which has just received a grant of DKK five million for the Lundbeck Foundation to test the Japanese medication camostat mesylate on the new corona virus (COVID-19).

If the required approvals from the regional health research ethics committee and the Danish Medicines Agency are finalised over the weekend, testing can already begin next week. What is more, only three to four months will be needed before it is clear whether camostat mesylate can, as presumed, block the corona virus in people who are infected.

Already tested on cells and mice

Camostat mesylate was introduced in Japan in 1986 and is currently used to treat heartburn and pancreatic inflammation. But why should it work against coronavirus?

“In trials abroad, the Japanese medication has shown it can block an old version of the corona virus called SARS-CoV," explains Mads Fuglsang Kjølby, who is a medical doctor at the Department of Clinical Pharmacology at Aarhus University Hospital and associate professor at the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University.

“The old version was the one that caused SARS in a wide range of countries back in 2002-03. And because this old version is closely related to the SARS-CoV-2 – that’s to say, the new corona virus which is the actual cause of COVID-19 – it makes a lot of sense to test camostat mesylate in the current situation.”

First human trials

In March, German researchers published a study which showed that in cellular tests, camostat mesylate was able to block the new corona virus. In addition, an experiment using mice has also shown that the drug reduced the mortality rate of the infection with the old SARS virus from 100 per cent to 30-40 per cent. And based on this knowledge, the researchers from Aarhus moved quickly.

“We’re the first in the world to test the drug on corona virus in people,” says Mads Fuglsang Kjølby.

“From a strictly pharmacological viewpoint, there’s no reason to wait. The Japanese pharmaceutical agencies are very scrupulous and often have stricter requirements than the authorities in Europe and USA.”

At the moment, the researchers are waiting for the actual drug to arrive from Japan. The research project will test camostat mesylate on 180 patients with COVID-19. The patients in the trial will come from all of Denmark’s five regions.

Facts about the research project with camostat mesylate:

  •  The 180 Danish corona patients who will participate in the trial will be volunteers.
  • The participants will be told they are participating in a randomised controlled trial and that a third of them will receive an ineffective agent – treatment with a placebo – while two thirds will receive the active substance (camostat mesylate).
  • Neither doctors nor patients will know who receives what.
  • Patients are given five days of treatment before subsequently being followed for one month.
  • The participants will be offered the opportunity to participate when they are admitted to the hospital after having been tested positive for the corona virus.
  • By comparing the two groups, the researchers will gradually be able to see whether the drug can dampen the course of the disease.
  • Once a total of 180 patients can be evaluated, the code is broken, which means that the doctors will now know which patients were receiving the active substance and the placebo, respectively. Then it will be possible to say whether the drug is effective.


Associate Professor and MD Mads Fuglsang Kjølby
Department of Biomedicine, Aarhus University and Department of Clinical Pharmacology, Aarhus University Hospital    
Mobile: (+45) 60 86 66 53
Email: mads@dandrite.au.dk

Associate professor and MD Ole Schmeltz Søgaard
Department of Clinical Medicine, Aarhus University and Department of Infectious Diseases, Aarhus University Hospital    
Mobile: (+45) 24 99 49 62
Email: olesoega@rm.dk

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