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Should explain height puzzles: Does a doping agent help against Covid-19?

People living at high altitudes are less likely to have severe symptoms of corona infection than those in the lowlands. The answer to the riddle could lie in the body’s hormone Epo. Researchers therefore believe that it could be an effective drug against Covid-19.

The growth hormone Epo has an extremely bad reputation – it is especially known in connection with doping scandals in professional sports. Because erythropoietin, or epo, naturally occurs in the body, stimulates the formation of red blood cells, which illegally helps endurance athletes to achieve better performance. However, artificially produced Epo is also used as a medication for anemia. Researchers now suspect that it could help patients with a severe course of Covid-19.

There is already some evidence of this, such as researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen in one study write. In Iran, for example, a corona patient with severe symptoms was given Epo because of poor blood counts. The amazing thing was that seven days after the start of treatment, the patient was able to leave the hospital.

Observations from South America also provide evidence of an effect of Epo on the course of Covid-19. There, serious illnesses are less common among people living in higher regions than among those from the lowlands. As is known, the higher the altitude in the mountains, the lower the oxygen content in the air. Since Epo is released by the body as a natural reaction to a lack of oxygen, the connection seems obvious: The higher Epo concentration in the blood of mountain people protects against the effects of the corona virus.

Epo protects various types of tissue

And there are other indications: “We have observed, for example, that dialysis patients survive Covid-19 remarkably well – and it is precisely these patients who receive erythropoietin as part of their dialysis,” says study co-author Hannelore Ehrenreich, according to the institute. But how exactly could Epo work against Covid-19? “Over the past 30 years, it has become increasingly clear that Epo is released in many organs and tissues of the body,” the authors of the study write. There it fulfills many functions and protects various forms of tissue – not just blood cells.

Epo, the Göttingen researchers believe, could therefore alleviate a whole range of Covid 19 symptoms. Animal studies have already shown that the hormone acts on areas in the brain stem and spinal cord that control breathing, which improves breathing when there is a lack of oxygen. Epo also has an anti-inflammatory effect, which could alleviate the often excessive immune response in Covid 19 patients. In addition, the molecule could protect against neurological symptoms of the disease such as headache, dizziness, loss of taste and smell.

Clinical trial should follow

What is missing so far is clinical evidence for the effectiveness of Epo against Covid-19. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies would have only a limited interest in funding further necessary studies on approved active ingredients such as erythropoietin, according to the institute’s communication. Especially for drugs like Epo, for which patent protection has also expired.

But the Göttingen researchers are now starting their own attempt: “We are (…) preparing a study on humans with which we want to investigate the effect of Epo on Covid-19, a so-called proof-of-concept study”, explains Ehrenreich. In this clinical study, seriously ill Covid-19 patients will receive additional Epo. The researchers want to find out whether the growth hormone can actually alleviate the course of the disease. “Covid-19 can have such serious health consequences that we have to investigate any evidence that Epo is protective.”

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