Study on radiation therapy in severe Covid-19 treatment launches in Finland

The treatment is otherwise commonly used in bone marrow transplant patients.

File photo of HUS Cancer Center radiation therapy unit. Image: Yle

Helsinki University Hospital (HUS) is beginning a study that will examine whether a very small dose of radiation therapy targeted at a patient's lungs can reduce the severity of a Covid-19 infection, the hospital announced on Monday.

HUS' Comprehensive Cancer Center's chief physician, Johanna Mattson, said the study aims to see if radiation therapy can help suppress the part of an individual's immunological defense system which eventually contributes to the illnesses that severe coronavirus infections cause.

The study will initially begin with five patients, according to the hospital. There is currently no evidence that any drug can cure or prevent a Covid-19 infection, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

"The idea is that [by using the therapy] we can affect the course of the disease by decreasing the [body's] inflammatory reaction," Mattson explained in a hospital release.

Similar low-dose radiation therapies have been used for decades in treating graft-versus-host reactions in bone marrow transplant patients. The goal of the treatment, according to the hospital, is to reduce a patient's defense system reactions.

Radiation risk: Only over-50s to get therapy

Radiation therapies were also commonly used in treating bacterial or viral pneumonia during the first half of the 20th century, before the advent of antibiotic treatments.

Now, the hospital said, the intent of the Covid-19 radiation therapy is to alleviate aggressive coronavirus infections that require hospitalisation, possibly preventing the need for intensive care treatment.

Possible benefits from the radiation therapy will be quickly evident, according to chief physicist at the centre, Mikko Tenhunen, but noted there are risks involved.

"A long-term disadvantage [to radiation therapy] is that it increases a patient's risk of developing a cancerous tumour within 10 to 20 year by about one percent. Dut to this small risk, only patients over 50 years of age may participate," Tenhunen said.

The radiation therapies carried out for the Covid-19 treatment study will take place separately from the centre's regular operations.

Two similar studies are also underway abroad, according to the hospital.

Mattson said that initially, five patients will receive the radiation therapy and then the centre will make an assessment whether the study will include more patients.