TORONTO — In the search for new drugs to fight the novel coronavirus, Canadian researchers have turned their attention to a popular super fruit.
Researchers at the University of Toronto have begun a clinical trial testing whether an early intervention of acai palm berry extract can help prevent severe complications caused by inflammation in patients with COVID-19 thanks to its proposed anti-inflammatory benefits.
“In a sense, it’s a Hail Mary,” Dr. Michael Farkouh, lead researcher and director of the Peter Munk Centre of Excellence in Multinational Clinical Trials, part of the University Health Network, told CTV News.
“But because of the easy accessibility to the berries, to the extract, that it’s safe and cheap, it’s really worth a shot.”
Acai berries have been widely promoted for weight-loss and anti-aging purposes in North America. But the berry’s extract has also shown some ability to lessen the body’s inflammatory response in initial medical studies.
As the pandemic continues, there is ongoing evidence showing that the disease caused by the novel coronavirus can trigger an acute inflammatory response, leading to severe complications, including inflammation in the heart and lungs.
Dr. Ana Andreazza, associate professor of Pharmacology and Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, has been studying the acai berry extract’s effect as a possible anti-inflammatory therapy for mental health disorders. Her studies showed the extract specifically decreased NLRP3-mediated inflammation, an inflammatory sensor that triggers the body’s response to fight off stress and infection.
As the coronavirus became a global pandemic, Andreazza was surprised to find NLRP3 also appears in severe COVID cases. That’s when she approached university officials with the idea and teamed up with Farkouh for the study.
The trial involves some 580 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are isolating at home. Some of the patients will be given acai pills, while others will be given a placebo pill.
Patients will take one capsule every eight hours, amounting to 520 Mg a day, and provide an assessment of their symptoms to researchers every 15 days.
The hope is that the treatment will prevent the need for hospitalization or the need of a ventilator, reducing the risk of death.
While it’s speculative, researchers say if the extract proves beneficial it could benefit the fight against the disease worldwide.
“If we can prevent hospitalization of patients and deterioration of patients early in the course of COVID-19 infection, then it could have immense effect,” Farkouh said.
While half of the patients involved in the trial are located in Toronto, the rest are located in Sao Paolo, Brazil — a country that has documented more than 3,760,000 cases of the virus since the beginning of the pandemic and where high-cost treatments aren’t an option.
Farkouh notes that a low-cost treatment, one that happens to be native to Brazil, could lessen the strain on the health-care system .
“You can also imagine that on the global front — in low and middle income countries where they can’t afford to take care of patients who are hospitalized, ventilated for up to three or four weeks,” he said, speaking of the potential impact of the treatment.
“This is a preventative strategy that we think will have global impact.”
Yet unlike many drugs and vaccine products in the pipeline, researchers say this potential treatment has no strings.
“There’s no real financial incentive; there’s no company behind it,” explained Farkouh.
“There’s no huge government agency behind it. So, it becomes a labour of love for those of us that are into public health and into prevention.”
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