Cancer drug from lab of bankrupt biotech works against COVID-19 and MRSA lung damage in mice

Just in time for a summer COVID wave to remind us that SARS-CoV-2 is here to stay, researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have published new findings that show an experimental cancer drug developed by a now-bankrupt biotech can suppress the virus in lung tissue. 

In a July 3 article in Science Translational Medicine, the UCSD team established that levels of damage-causing immune cells called myeloid cells are raised in the lungs of people with COVID-19 and other infections, like methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Targeting an enzyme called phosphatidylinositol 3,4,5-kinase gamma (PI3Kγ) with the small molecule inhibitor eganelisib—a clinical-stage anti-cancer agent developed by Infinity Pharmaceuticals, which declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 2023—reduced the number of myeloid cells in the lungs and improved the survival rate of mice infected with either COVID-19 or MRSA. 

“Other drugs were tested early during the COVID-19 crisis for similar effects, with only modest success,” Judith Varner, Ph.D., the paper’s senior author who also studied eganelisib on behalf of Infinity, said in a press release. “Our work is significant because this is the first time this particular approach of targeting the myeloid cells specifically has been shown to be effective in COVID.” 

Myeloid cells release immune pathway signaling proteins called cytokines and are thus an essential part of the immune system. But the inflammation they cause can go awry and lead to life-threatening lung damage, as happens in some patients with COVID-19 as well as those who are co-infected with flu and MRSA

PI3Kγ is a key component of this process because it helps myeloid cells move into virus-infected organs. It does the same thing in cancerous tissues, which was the logic behind eganelisib’s mechanism of action. Stopping PI3Kγ’s activity stops myeloid cell migration, ameliorating tissue damage. 

Before Infinity shut down, eganelisib was fast-tracked by the FDA for potential use in triple-negative breast cancer in combination with other drugs. A phase 1 study on that indication was completed in May 2024. Clinical trials for its use in urethral cancer, head and neck cancer and renal cell carcinoma were also underway. 

Now, the team behind the research hopes that it will lead drug companies to develop compounds similar to eganelisib to treat COVID-19, MRSA and other diseases that cause myeloid-cell-driven organ damage. Varner also said in the release that she hopes the latest findings will lead to more funding for her team to continue their work in a range of disease settings. 

Fierce has reached out to UCSD for comment.