The Saint John’s Cancer Institute is searching for a safe and effective treatment for COVID-19. Under the leadership of Dr. Steven J. O’Day, M.D., Executive Director of the Saint John’s Cancer Institute & Cancer Clinic, and Director of Providence Los Angeles Regional Research, our clinicians and translational scientists have pivoted from not only finding better treatment options for cancer patients, but to now joining the fight in finding a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

We interviewed Dr. O’Day to learn more about the coronavirus and the cutting-edge drugs his team is researching.

How Does the Coronavirus Attack our Bodies?

The Coronavirus seems to gain entry into humans through the nasal pharynx passageways. About 80% of people who have the virus, result with a pretty severe flu-like illness, and recover in a couple weeks. However, in about 20% of patients, usually a week into their illness, instead of turning the corner to slowly recovering as you might expect, there’s a sudden rapid worsening, as the virus then infects the lower respiratory, lungs, kidneys, and heart.

It’s a fascinating transition point between the first week of illness, and the 80% to 20% outcomes. Our goal is to shorten the course of illness for the 80% and intervene for the 20% to prevent the virus from infecting other areas of the body.

How Are Cancer Physicians and Scientists Helping to Find a Vaccine for COVID-19?

The world class cancer clinicians and translational scientists at the Saint John’s Cancer Institute work collaboratively to advance patient care. Our patients have access to the latest treatments and cutting edge new drug clinical trials. We are at the forefront of transforming discoveries leading to advancements in cancer medicine and patient survival. Our team has a deep history in immunotherapy of cancer and vaccines, which allows us to bring these potentially life-supporting therapies to our patients at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.

“We use many immune drugs to treat cancer, and across all kinds of cancer we’re seeing remarkable results. Because of that, we have a deep scientific knowledge base on how the immune system interacts with cancer, and it turns out those same lessons are very relevant to how the immune system is interacting with viruses.”

Dr. Steven J. O’Day, M.D.,

COVID-19 Clinical Trials

As a designated site for clinical trials, we are evaluating the two most promising drugs in treating patients and combating COVID-19.

  1. We have an antiviral clinical trial with the Gilead drug, remdesivir, which is showing promise as it attacks the virus.
  2. It’s also clear that the virus uses inflammation to damage the body and continue to spread, so we have another clinical trial with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, with IL-6 antagonist called Sarilumab.

We also have a Convalescent Plasma trial with the Mayo Clinic. Patients who have fully recovered from COVID-19 infection have antibodies in their plasma that can attack the virus and protect them from becoming infected again with coronavirus. Their plasma may be rich with these antibodies that might be helpful in the treatment of COVID-19 infection in others.

Additionally, we have a number of other novel approaches that we’re looking at in small pilot trials with different inflammatory drugs, vaccines, other neutralizing antibodies, and even stem cells to try to heal the lungs. One treatment is unlikely to be the overall solution in very sick patients. We’re going to have to use a combination approach and how we treat cancer very much reflects that.

Watch our video to learn how the Saint John’s Cancer Institute is in the fight to find a vaccine for COVID-19!

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About the Author

Dr. Steven O'Day

Dr. Steven J. O’Day, is the Executive Director of the Saint John’s Cancer Institute and Cancer Clinic, and Director of Providence Los Angeles Regional Research. He is the Professor of Medical Oncology, Director of Immuno-Oncology, Director of Clinical Research at the Saint John’s Cancer Institute. Dr. O’Day is recognized as one of the preeminent melanoma specialists in the world, and combines expert clinical care with teaching and leading clinical research. He lectures extensively, both nationally and internationally. He has been at the forefront of new drug development in melanoma over the last two decades. Learn More About Dr. Steven O'Day.