A ‘potentially life-saving’ treatment for coronavirus patients with diabetes will begin human trials in Britain this week.
Doctors will test an AstraZeneca-made drug called AZD1656 to see if it can reduce the risk of serious illness or death for infected diabetics.
Patients with type 1 or type 2 diabetes face up to three times the risk of dying if they catch Covid-19, an array of studies have shown.
Shock NHS statistics show that more than a quarter of all coronavirus deaths in people who had other illnesses have been among people living with diabetes.
The experimental drug being tested is called a glucose kinase activator – it is designed to reduce blood sugar and is still in clinical trial phases for use on type 2 diabetes and kidney transplant patients.
It will be trialled on up to 150 Covid-19 patients from NHS hospitals over the next four months.
Researchers hope it will prevent the immune systems of diabetic patients from over-reacting to coronavirus, which can be deadly.
The firm running the trial on patients in hospital said it was ‘potentially life-saving’ and ‘has the potential to make a huge difference’.
Although the reason people with diabetes are at greater risk from coronavirus is not perfectly understood, it is thought to be down to immune system dysfunction.
Those with the illnesses, which mean the body is unable to control sugar levels in the blood, tend to be at greater risk of infections in general.
Wounds and illnesses are slower to heal in people with diabetes and they are more at risk of complications because high levels of sugar can damage vital molecules in the immune system.
If they catch Covid-19 people with the conditions appear to be more likely to develop pneumonia or to have a deadly immune system over-reaction.
This applies both to type 1 diabetes, which cannot be prevented, and type 2 diabetes which is often brought on by unhealthy lifestyles — a bad diet and not exercising.
Studies suggest that people with type 1 diabetes have a more than three times higher risk of death with Covid-19 than a healthy person, and those with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to die, according to the NHS .
In the UK there are around 4.7million people living with diabetes, including around a million people who don’t know they have it, according to Diabetes UK.
There are an estimated 34.2million people in the US with one of the illnesses. It affects around one in 10 adults in the UK and US.
Scientists at Excalibur Healthcare Services, which has organised and got funding for the trial, hope that AZD1656 will stop diabetic patients’ immune systems from over-reacting to Covid-19.
The glucokinase activator, made by Cambridge-based AstraZeneca, is designed to be used to reduce blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.
Tests have proved it is safe and it is undergoing mass human trials to check it works effectively, aimed at people with type 2 diabetes and people who have had kidney transplants.
The coronavirus trial, named ARCADIA, is being run with the help of the British medical research charity St George Street.
CEO of the charity, David Tapolczay, said: ‘Given the current crisis, we have paused all our current research programmes to focus totally on this clinical trial and evaluate this potentially life-saving new drug.
‘Our charity was set up to accelerate the delivery of treatments to patients and this ethos is needed now more than ever before.
‘We want to do everything in our power to ensure patients recover from this terrible virus.’
Professor Chris Evans, chairman of Excalibur Health Services, said: ‘All of us supporting this trial recognise this drug has the potential to make a huge difference to people with diabetes who are unfortunate enough to contract coronavirus and we foresee a significant impact on the level of fatalities in the future.
‘Treatments such as this could be vital as we are likely to be living with this horrific virus for some time to come.’
The drug will be trialled on coronavirus patients in UK hospitals who have ‘mild to moderate’ symptoms.
If it works the company suggested the drug could be prescribed by a GP to diabetic people who have early symptoms of Covid-19.
The ARCADIA trial has received approval from the governmental Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
It comes as AstraZeneca today revealed it is now injecting volunteers with its new antibody treatment for Covid-19 in a bid to see if it will protect people and also help patients who are already ill.
The British company, which is also manufacturing an experimental jab developed by experts at Oxford University, hope the monoclonal antibody therapy will prove to be a coronavirus breakthrough.
The treatment works by pumping antibodies — natural virus-fighting molecules — into people who don’t have their own.
These antibodies are harvested from patients who have already had the disease and produced the right substances to fend it off.
If AstraZeneca’s therapy works it could be a way to equip people’s immune systems to fight the coronavirus, even if they have never had it.
The firm, worth £114billion, today confirmed the treatment has now started human trials in a group of 48 adult volunteers in the UK.