UB pharmacy researcher one of the first in the nation to test experimental COVID-19 treatment

Gene Morse.

SUNY Distinguished Professor Gene Morse

Published April 2, 2020

Critically ill Covid-19 patients at Buffalo hospitals will start receiving an experimental treatment involving an arthritis drug that showed promise in bringing some patients back from the brink of death in China.


The Food and Drug Administration Wednesday gave permission to researchers at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and the University at Buffalo to help lead a clinical trial study of the drug, sarilumab, which they hope will prevent inflammation that chokes off breathing for those on ventilators.

“We literally heard about this study on Saturday, and what normally takes six months took a matter of four days with an incredible effort,” said Dr. Timothy Murphy, one of several leading researchers involved in the effort.

Hospitals in the Buffalo Niagara region are among a select few in the U.S., Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Canada and Russia that will initially test the drug on patients with Covid-19, according to drug manufacturer Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Tarrytown, N.Y.

The initial trial will involve up to 400 patients worldwide, including those at Buffalo General Medical Center, Erie County Medical Center and Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital.

Sarilumab (brand name Kevzara), an injectable drug, treats rheumatoid arthritis by blocking an inflammatory response. Researchers hope it will short-circuit the way the body’s immune system overreacts to the novel coronavirus, inflaming the lungs, causing pneumonia and, in the most severe cases, causing a deadly condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome.

The existing drug now becomes one of several that doctors in intensive care units across the world have started to give patients in last-ditch, life-saving efforts.

“There are probably dozens of drugs being tested. Most researchers are probably taking an anti-viral approach as opposed to an anti-inflammatory approach,” said Murphy, a SUNY distinguished professor and senior associate dean for clinical and translational research at the UB Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Dr. Igor Puzanov, director of the Early Phase Clinical Trials Program at Roswell Park, and Gene Morse, a distinguished UB pharmacy professor, will lead the trial in the Buffalo Niagara region.

Puzanov is a nationally known cancer researcher. Morse is co-director of the SUNY Global Health Institute and director of the UB Center for Integrated Global Biomedical Sciences.