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Clinical Trial Uses Immune System Booster to Fight Sepsis

By John Commins  
   March 08, 2018

Researchers say the use of Interleukin-7 is a departure from traditional treatments that have relied on antibiotics and inflammatory medications that tamp down the immune system.

A small clinical trial shows that a drug used to rev up the immune system could effectively treat sepsis.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis said their findings are a potential breakthrough in the fight against sepsis, which claims about 250,000 lives each year.

The use of immune system boosting drugs is a marked departure from standard treatments for sepsis that involve high doses of antibiotics that fight the infection, but which fail to boost the body’s immune defenses.

The results were published Thursday in JCI Insight.

The trial involved 27 sepsis patients, ages 33 to 82, who were treated at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville or two medical centers in France — Dupuytren University Hospital in Limoges and Edouard Herriot Hospital in Lyon.

The study authors concede that the trial was too small to see a statistical benefit in mortality. However, senior investigator Richard S. Hotchkiss, MD, said there was an improved immune response in patients who were given a drug to beef up their immunity.

Related: OhioHealth Sepsis Effort ‘Saved About 250 Lives’

"Mortality rates from sepsis have remained essentially the same over the last 50 years. Hundreds of drugs have been tried and have failed," said Hotchkiss, a professor of anesthesiology, of medicine and of surgery.

"It may sound counterintuitive when inflammation is such a problem early in sepsis, but our approach is to stimulate certain immune cells to help the patient's system take control of the infection," he said.

The patients were treated with a drug made of interleukin-7 (IL-7).

"IL-7 reverses the marked loss of CD4 and CD8 T cells, a hallmark of sepsis and a likely key pathophysiological event responsible for the morbidity and mortality of the disorder," Hotchkiss said.

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders.

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