Tang Prize laureate happy his research may save COVID-19 patients

Japanese immunologist Kishimoto Tadamitsu, one of the co-winners of the 2020 Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science, was very happy that his early research has shown potential in saving COVID-19 patients from dying due to complications.

Kishimoto, along with fellow immunologists Marc Feldmann and Charles Dinarello, won the 2020 Tang Prize for the development of therapies that target a large family of proteins called cytokines that are associated with the progression of inflammatory diseases.

During a virtual press event after the winners were announced, Kishimoto said recent clinical trials showed that a therapy developed by him and his team to attack one type of cytokine — interleukin-6 — can prevent a “cytokine storm” induced by the virus that causes COVID-19.

A cytokine storm occurs when the body’s immune system releases an excess of cytokines that send out signals causing the immune system to attack not only the invaders but also healthy cells, damaging body tissues and organs.

“If this is the case, our seas of studies on interleukin-6 (IL-6) can rescue millions of rheumatoid patients as well as possibly COVID-19 pandemic patients,” Kishimoto said.

He added that he was very glad that a basic study from almost half a century ago has proven useful to medicine and rescued many patients in the world.

The 76-year-old Osaka University professor said he is planning to use the cash prize and research grant to improve his laboratory as well as to help foreign students studying at the university.

The three laureates will share a cash award of NT$40 million (US$1.35 million) and a NT$10 million research grant and will receive medals and certificates.

Dinarello, an American, and Feldmann, an Australian who has spent much of his life in Britain, were not able to join the virtual interview because of their schedule and the time difference between their cities and Taiwan, but they shared messages in videos.

“In accepting the Tang Prize, I thank all who contributed to the understanding of the role of interleukin-1 in both health and disease,” Dinarello said in a video posted on Tang Prize Foundation’s website.

Dinarello, who started his career by studying fevers, recalled how he was able to hypothesize, study, and prove the presence of a natural fever inducing molecule, now called the leukocyte pyrogen, despite being faced with criticisms from other scientists during the time.

Later, however, Dinarello realized that the leukocyte pyrogen also caused local and systemic inflammation, and was named interleukin-1. He and his team later succeeded in making interleukin-1 the fourth human gene cloned.

“We submitted our paper to Nature, and it was promptly rejected. I often tell my students that when your paper is rejected by a prestigious journal, it means your work was correct,” he said.

Therapies have since been developed to block interleukin-1 in the development of inflammatory diseases, he said.

Meanwhile, Feldmann said in a separate video from London that he expects the COVID-19 pandemic to “remain in our population probably for decades, if not longer,” as he commended Taiwan for managing the situation well.

Feldmann said he has “alerted the community” that therapies combating tumor necrosis factor (TNF), which is his specialization, may be potentially helpful in fighting COVID-19.

TNF inhibitors are used to stop inflammation and treat diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and Crohn’s disease.

Feldmann said he has helped design, fund and organize two clinical trials — one for intravenous anti-TNF therapy and the other for subcutaneous anti-TNF therapy.

The intravenous therapy trial is due to start this week, while the subcutaneous therapy trial will probably start in a month or two, he said, expressing optimism that the trials will be beneficial to managing COVID-19.

“Academics mostly work for the common good and their recognition is the esteem of their peers measured in different ways,” he said. “But the very pinnacle of recognition by one’s peers is the award of a small number of international prizes, of which the Tang is one.”

“So I’m very pleased that my contributions to research and human welfare have been chosen to be meritorious,” he said.

 

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel

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