Whitehead Fellow Kipp Weiskopf awarded grant to investigate treatments for COVID-19

Weiskopf stands smiling in front of a floor-to-ceiling window.

Credit: Gretchen Ertl

May 18, 2020

Whitehead Fellow Kipp Weiskopf has been awarded funding from Fast Grants, a part of Emergent Ventures at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, to investigate how existing FDA-approved drugs could be repurposed to reduce the severity and mortality of COVID-19. 

Weiskopf, who is also a practicing physician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, investigates macrophages, a type of immune cell present throughout the body. His previous investigations have focused on developing therapies that increase the activation of macrophages and prompt them to destroy cancer cells. For this current project, Weiskopf will instead search for drugs that inhibit macrophage activation, since macrophage overactivation has been implicated in severe cases of COVID-19.

Macrophages are typically protective against disease, but when immune cells become hyperactive—such as in response to a pathogen like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19—their overactivity can have dire consequences. Macrophages and other immune cells release molecules called cytokines that increase immune activity, including inflammation, in response to invading pathogens. When this positive feedback loop goes into overdrive, it creates a “cytokine storm,” the symptoms of which can end up being more damaging to organs and tissues than the disease they were meant to ward off. In particular, cytokine storms in the lungs cause the buildup of immune cell-filled fluid that can block off airways and cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and even death, as has been seen in severe cases of COVID-19. 

Weiskopf will use his Fast Grant funding to screen drugs that have FDA approval for use in other contexts to see whether they are also effective at inhibiting macrophages and, in turn, preventing dangerous cytokine storms. Promising candidates will be tested in both human cells and mouse models. This sort of drug screen is particularly conducive to fast-tracked clinical trials, because the drugs have already been approved as safe for human use. Weiskopf’s lab is in conversation with collaborators at several Boston-area hospitals in order to prepare to quickly move promising candidates to the next stage of testing.

“I’m grateful for the support of the Mercatus Center as my lab refocuses our macrophage research in this new direction,” Weiskopf says. “I think there is great potential here to find treatments that protect patients against the severe risk of cytokine storms and to have an impact in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.” 

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