A University of Toledo researcher is exploring whether a synthetic hormone often prescribed during childbirth could be repurposed to treat COVID-19.
Dr. Elissar Andari, assistant professor of psychiatry in the UToledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences, has been studying the benefits of oxytocin for more than a decade. Used to induce labor since the 1950s, oxytocin is a neuropeptide that is crucial for immune function, anxiety reduction and the formation of social bonds. Because of this, oxytocin has been a therapeutic target for several neurodevelopmental disorders and infectious diseases.
“Though best-known for its role in childbirth and emotional bonding, oxytocin is also known to have strong anti-inflammatory properties and protective pro-immune effects,” Andari said. “We wanted to investigate if those attributes might help COVID-19 patients suffering from dangerous inflammation caused by cytokine storms.”
Cytokine storms occur when an overactive immune response causes frenzied inflammation that leads to the body attacking its own healthy cells. They are one of the most serious complications of COVID-19, frequently leading to death.
As a first step to study oxytocin’s potential to reduce or even prevent cytokine storms, Andari used the National Institutes of Health’s Library of Integrated Network-based Cellular Signature to compare the gene expression signatures of various drugs, including the oxytocin analogue carbetocin, to the signatures of inflammatory and immune knockout genes.
Their analysis found that carbetocin has a similar transcriptomic signature to the knockout of the IL-6 gene that is involved in inflammation and usually highly released during cytokine storms.
While the exact mechanisms remain unknown, the study offers preliminary evidence that carbetocin might be able to both tamp down the body’s inflammatory response and bolster its helpful immune response.
Additionally, the research suggested carbetocin has more similar genetic profiles to genes related to immune cell response than lopinavir and hydroxychloroquine, both of which have been explored as COVID-19 treatments.
The findings were recently published in the journal Physiological Genomics.
Early data from the project also helped Andari secure a start-up grant from the UToledo Medical Research Society in April to support a pilot study on the role of oxytocin in COVID-19 using translational and clinical approaches.
While vaccine researchers are racing to develop safe and effective ways to prevent COVID-19, widespread immunization is likely still many months away. It is crucial to find ways to treat the potentially deadly disease in the meantime.
“Developing new drugs to treat COVID-19 would be a great outcome, but that would take a lot of time and will mainly target severe cases,” Andari said. “However, there is a significant lack of therapeutics that can be used as prophylactic or used during mild and moderate COVID-19 cases. Given the mortality rate and what’s going on in the world with increasing cases of COVID-19, repurposing existing, approved candidates that are identified as potential targets using computational approaches is very encouraging.”
Oxytocin has a well-known safety profile, though researchers also caution it would still need to be proven safe in COVID-19 patients.
Andari and her colleagues are advocating for more research, including testing the drug in live cells, in animal models and in human trials, to further examine its potential as a preventative measure to reduce the chance of cytokine storms or for treating hospitalized patients suffering from COVID-19.