Anakinra Improved Survival in Hospitalized COVID-19 Patients

Heidi Splete

September 07, 2021

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Hospitalized COVID-19 patients at increased risk for respiratory failure showed significant improvement after treatment with anakinra, compared with placebo, based on data from a phase 3, randomized trial of nearly 600 patients who also received standard of care treatment.

Dr Salim Hayek

Anakinra, a recombinant interleukin (IL)-1 receptor antagonist that blocks activity for both IL-1 alpha and beta, showed a 70% decrease in the risk of progression to severe respiratory failure in a prior open-label, phase 2, proof-of-concept study, wrote Evdoxia Kyriazopoulou, MD, PhD, of National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, and colleagues.

Previous research has shown that soluble urokinase plasminogen activator receptor (suPAR) serum levels can signal increased risk of progression to severe disease and respiratory failure in COVID-19 patients, they noted.

Supported by these early findings, "the SAVE-MORE study (suPAR-guided anakinra treatment for validation of the risk and early management of severe respiratory failure by COVID-19) is a pivotal, confirmatory, phase 3, double-blind, randomized controlled trial that evaluated the efficacy and safety of early initiation of anakinra treatment in hospitalized patients with moderate or severe COVID-19," the researchers said.

In the SAVE-MORE study published Sept. 3 in Nature Medicine, the researchers identified 594 adults with COVID-19 who were hospitalized at 37 centers in Greece and Italy and at risk of progressing to respiratory failure based on plasma suPAR levels of at least 6 ng/mL.

The primary objective was to assess the impact of early anakinra treatment on the clinical status of COVID-19 patients at risk for severe disease according to the 11-point, ordinal World Health Organization Clinical Progression Scale (WHO-CPS) at 28 days after starting treatment. All patients received standard of care, which consisted of regular monitoring of physical signs, oximetry, and anticoagulation. Patients with severe disease by the WHO definition were also received 6 mg of dexamethasone intravenously daily for 10 days. A total of 405 were randomized to anakinra and 189 to placebo. Approximately 92% of the study participants had severe pneumonia according to the WHO classification for COVID-19. The average age of the patients was 62 years, 58% were male, and the average body mass index was 29.5 kg/m2.

At 28 days, 204 (50.4%) of the anakinra-treated patients had fully recovered, with no detectable viral RNA, compared with 50 (26.5%) of the placebo-treated patients (P < .0001). In addition, significantly fewer patients in the anakinra group had died by 28 days (13 patients, 3.2%), compared with patients in the placebo group (13 patients, 6.9%).

The median decrease in WHO-CPS scores from baseline to 28 days was 4 points in the anakinra group and 3 points in the placebo group, a statistically significant difference (P < .0001).

"Overall, the unadjusted proportional odds of having a worse score on the 11-point WHO-CPS at day 28 with anakinra was 0.36 versus placebo," and this number remained the same in adjusted analysis, the researchers wrote.

All five secondary endpoints on the WHO-CPS showed significant benefits of anakinra, compared with placebo. These included an absolute decrease of WHO-CPS at day 28 and day 14 from baseline; an absolute decrease of Sequential Organ Failure Assessment scores at day 7 from baseline; and a significantly shorter mean time to both hospital and ICU discharge (1 day and 4 days, respectively) with anakinra versus placebo.

Follow-up laboratory data showed a significant increase in absolute lymphocyte count at 7 days, a significant decrease in circulating IL-6 levels at 4 and 7 days, and significantly decreased plasma C-reactive protein (CRP) levels at 7 days.

Serious treatment-emergent adverse events were reported in 16% with anakinra and in 21.7% with placebo; the most common of these events were infections (8.4% with anakinra and 15.9% with placebo). The next most common serious treatment-emergent adverse events were ventilator-associated pneumonia, septic shock and multiple organ dysfunction, bloodstream infections, and pulmonary embolism. The most common nonserious treatment-emergent adverse events were an increase of liver function tests and hyperglycemia (similar in anakinra and placebo groups) and nonserious anemia (lower in the anakinra group).

The study findings were limited by several factors, including the lack of patients with critical COVID-19 disease and the challenge of application of suPAR in all hospital settings, the researchers noted. However, "the results validate the findings of the previous SAVE open-label phase 2 trial," they said. The results suggest "that suPAR should be measured upon admission of all patients with COVID-19 who do not need oxygen or who need nasal or mask oxygen, and that, if suPAR levels are 6 ng/mL or higher, anakinra treatment might be a suitable therapy," they concluded.

Cytokine Storm Syndrome Remains a Treatment Challenge

"Many who die from COVID-19 suffer hyperinflammation with features of cytokine storm syndrome (CSS) and associated acute respiratory distress syndrome," wrote Randy Q. Cron, MD, and W. Winn Chatham, MD, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Roberto Caricchio, MD, of Temple University, Philadelphia, in an accompanying editorial. They noted that the SAVE-MORE trial results contrast with another recent randomized trial of canakinumab, which failed to show notable benefits, compared with placebo, in treating hospitalized patients with COVID-19 pneumonia.

"There are some key differences between these trials, one being that anakinra blocks signaling of both IL-1 alpha and IL-1 beta, whereas canakinumab binds only IL-1 beta," the editorialists explained. "SARS-CoV-2–infected endothelium may be a particularly important source of IL-1 alpha that is not targeted by canakinumab," they noted.

Additional studies have examined IL-6 inhibition to treat COVID-19 patients, but data have been inconsistent, the editorialists said.

"One thing that is clearly emerging from this pandemic is that the CSS associated with COVID-19 is relatively unique, with only modestly elevated levels of IL-6, CRP, and ferritin, for example," they noted. However, the SAVE-MORE study suggests that more targeted approaches, such as anakinra, "may allow earlier introduction of anticytokine treatment" and support the use of IL-1 blockade with anakinra for cases of severe COVID-19 pneumonia.

Predicting Risk for Severe Disease

"One of the major challenges in the management of patients with COVID-19 is identifying patients at risk of severe disease who would warrant early intervention with anti-inflammatory therapy," said Salim Hayek, MD, medical director of the University of Michigan's Frankel Cardiovascular Center Clinics, in an interview. "We and others had found that soluble urokinase plasminogen activator receptor (suPAR) levels are the strongest predictor of severe disease amongst biomarkers of inflammation," he said. "In this study, patients with high suPAR levels derived benefit from anakinra, compared to those with placebo. This study is a great example of how suPAR levels could be used to identify high-risk patients that would benefit from therapies targeting inflammation," Hayek emphasized.

"The findings are in line with the hypothesis that patients with the highest degrees of inflammation would benefit the best from targeting the hyperinflammatory cascade using anakinra or other interleukin antagonists," Hayek said. "Given suPAR levels are the best predictors of high-risk disease, it is not surprising to see that patients with high levels benefit from targeting inflammation," he noted.

The take-home message for clinicians at this time is that anakinra effectively improves outcomes in COVID-19 patients with high suPAR levels, Hayek said. "SuPAR can be measured easily at the point of care. Thus, a targeted strategy using suPAR to identify patients who would benefit from anakinra appears to be viable," he explained.

However, "Whether anakinra is effective in patients with lower suPAR levels (<6 ng/mL) is unclear and was not answered by this study," he said. "We eagerly await results of other trials to make that determination. Whether suPAR levels can also help guide the use of other therapies for COVID-19 should be explored and would enhance the personalization of treatment for COVID-19 according to the underlying inflammatory state," he added.

The SAVE-MORE study was funded by the Hellenic Institute for the Study of Sepsis and Sobi, which manufactures anakinra. Some of the study authors reported financial relationships with Sobi and other pharmaceutical companies. Cron disclosed serving as a consultant to Sobi, Novartis, Pfizer, and Sironax. Cron and Chatham disclosed grant support from Sobi for investigator-initiated clinical trials, and Caricchio disclosed serving as a consultant to GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Aurinia, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. Hayek has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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