U of M Team Examines the Protective Role of PDE5 Inhibitors During COVID-19 Infection

As researchers around the world race to find a vaccine for COVID-19, a team led by Bong Sook Jhun, PhD, FCVS, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School, is focused on finding a more immediate solution. They are using recent clinical reports on COVID-19 patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension to reveal new information.

“We’re looking for something that can help people now. It’s not a cure or a vaccine; but, while other people work on that, we can do this to help,” Dr. Jhun said.

Even though people with pre-existing heart and lung diseases have long been known to suffer from viruses at increased rates, surprisingly, recent clinical studies found that patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension who were infected with the coronavirus had milder symptoms, fewer hospitalizations and quicker recoveries than the average COVID-19 patient.

Pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) is a disease that slows blood flow through the lungs, causes high blood pressure in the lung arteries and requires the heart to work harder. This extra effort is what can cause the heart to become weak and fail. A common treatment is to use PDE5 inhibitor medications that relax blood vessels. Relaxation increases the supply of blood to the lungs and reduces the workload of the heart. Researchers believe these PAH-specific medications may be reducing the morbidity and mortality rates in PAH patients who contract COVID-19.

With the support of a CO:VID (Collaborative Outcomes: Visionary Innovation & Discovery) grant, Dr. Jhun’s research is exploring the potential beneficial role of clinically approved PDE5 inhibitors such as sildenafil and tadalafil during COVID-19 infection.

She said, “Of course there are several possibilities, but what we think is that some of the medications that PAH patients are taking daily may play a protective role during virus infection, potentially by blocking host-cell injury such as cell death in the cardiovascular system.”

Although the Federal Drug Administration approves the use of PDE5 inhibitors for certain types of diseases, additional approval must be given for use with COVID-19 patients. However, this process should be much faster than developing new drugs that have never been used in the clinical setting. For the next year, Dr. Jhun’s team expects to only use animals while evaluating the efficacy and safety of PDE5 inhibitors against COVID-19.

Dr. Jhun’s expertise is usually focused on the study of cardiac damage, but this current research is focused on those who suffer from a disease of the lungs. This transition was prompted by the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Jhun said, “I saw the need. So, hopefully, by figuring out exactly what it is that’s causing the surprising result in PAH patients, we’ll be able to take that and apply it to a greater number of people for a more immediate solution to our society’s problem. To that end, we hope that this upcoming data from our research help researchers and clinicians at the U of M easily get approval for clinical trials in the near future.”