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Could the multiple sclerosis drug dimethyl fumarate help treat coronavirus?

In laboratory experiments, Danish researchers investigated the effects of the multiple sclerosis drug dimethyl fumarate on coronavirus.

The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, highlights the need to have a broad range of effective antiviral drugs. Viral infections can cause illness in humans both by directly damaging body cells and by provoking an inflammatory reaction. The SARS-CoV-2 virus produces a severe inflammatory response in some patients, which leads to serious illness and can be fatal.

Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at Aarhus University, Denmark were already carrying out laboratory investigations into a group of antiviral drugs that both inhibit growth of a broad range of viruses and also have an anti-inflammatory effect. With the arrival of the pandemic, they began to test the effects of these drugs on SARS-CoV-2. One of the drugs, dimethyl fumarate, is currently used for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, a complex condition in which the body’s own immune system attacks nerve fibres. The researchers recently published their results in Nature Communications.

Antiviral drugs needed to reduce viral growth and decrease inflammatory response

The researchers were initially investigating the effects of 4-octyl-itaconate – a drug of the same type as dimethyl fumarate – on reducing growth of a range of viruses including herpes, smallpox and zika virus in human cell cultures. After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, they tested 4-octyl-itaconate on the SAR-CoV-2 virus. They found that it inhibited SARS-CoV-2 growth in human cells and reduced inflammatory pathways. Encouraged by these results they repeated the investigations with dimethyl fumarate, a drug already licensed for use in multiple sclerosis patients. Dimethyl fumarate showed similar inhibitory effects on SARS-CoV-2 growth in cells and in reducing the cellular inflammatory response.

Dimethyl fumarate shows promise for coronavirus treatment

The researchers are encouraged by these initial findings, but stress that these are laboratory investigations rather than clinical trials in patients. “As we’re doing basic research, we obviously don’t know whether the drug [dimethyl fumarate] works on infections in humans, and it’s up to the infectious disease experts to test for this. However, I have to say that I’m very optimistic,” commented Dr. Christian Holm, one of the lead authors of the study.

Dimethyl fumarate has the advantage of already being in use in multiple sclerosis patients, which means that it could move quickly to clinical trials. “You can really save a lot of time when you’re testing a medication that has already been approved and tested in another context,” added Dr. Holm. The researchers are hoping that dimethyl fumarate will soon progress to human trials.

Written by Julie McShane, MA MB BS


1. Olagnier D, Farahani E, Holm C, et al.SARS-CoV2-mediated suppression of NRF2-signaling reveals potent antiviral and anti-inflammatory activity of 4-octyl-itaconate and dimethyl fumarate. Nature Communications 11, Article number:4938 (2020).

2. Aarhus University, Press release Oct 2, 2020. Medicine for multiple sclerosis patients inhibits coronavirus – at least in a test tube.

Image by fernando zhiminaicela from Pixabay 

Julie Mcshane MA MB BS
Julie Mcshane MA MB BS
Julie studied medicine at the Universities of Cambridge and London, UK. Whilst in medical practice, she developed an interest in medical writing and moved to a career in medical communications. She worked with companies in London and Hong Kong on a wide variety of medical education projects. Originally from Ireland, Julie is now based in Dublin, where she is a freelance medical writer. She enjoys contributing to the Medical News Bulletin to help provide a source of accurate and clear information about the latest developments in medical research.


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