chloroquine pills and illustration of its carbon structure Stock Photo

The researcher says his hope is to find a way to make chloroquine safer and more effective.

Chloroquine, a drug used to fight malaria, lupus, arthritis, and now sometimes COVID-19, can easily go from helpful to harmful. 

Currently, the drug, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration long ago for its use against other diseases, can be used on COVID-19 patients in emergencies — for example, when patients are in the hospital and doctors can’t get their symptoms under control. 

Last week, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons sent a letter to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey asking him to lift restrictions on the drug being prescribed as a preventative measure. However, while some patients have found success with chloroquine, it’s unclear how effective or safe it really is.

According to the BBC, there are at least 20 clinical trials across the world. One study in Brazil had to be ended early due to a number of patients developing severe heart problems.

Dr. Xinxin Ding, head of the Pharmacology and Toxicology Department at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy, told The Copper Courier it’s “not a nice drug.” 

“The normal dose that’s prescribed for people … is about 10 mg per kilogram body weight,” Ding said. “But if the dose is somehow increased just two times … it would be toxic to people. And if it goes up to three times … it would kill people.” 

Talk of the drug being able to treat and prevent the virus has also led to problems with people self-medicating. An Arizona man died in March after he and his wife drank some soda with a teaspoon each of chloroquine phosphate, a formulation of the drug meant for fish. The wife was in critical condition but recovered. Three people in Nigeria were also reportedly hospitalized for overdosing on the medication. 

Now, it’s Ding’s job to find a way to make the drug safer.

The scientist was recently granted funding from the state’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund to start studying ways to formulate and deliver chloroquine that allows people to receive lower doses with the same effectiveness as a higher one. 

“The project … really doesn’t do anything directly with the virus itself – it’s just to make the drug more effective, safer,” Ding said.

He said genetics, physiology, abilities to handle and process drugs, and current prescriptions can also increase the chance of a person’s chloroquine dose becoming toxic to them. 

RELATED: Whistleblower Says He Was Fired Over Warnings About Hydroxychloroquine

To make the drug safer, Ding will work with UArizona colleague Dr. Jianquin Lu on formulating chloroquine using nanotechnology. Nanoparticles help prevent the drug from degradation in the body, allowing lower doses to be as effective as regular ones.

Ding also wants to try delivering the drug to the body as a liposome rather than a pill, “to see if that would be as effective–but much less toxic to a patient.” 

Ding said he expects the research will take half a year before they get to a place where they can get approval to try the products on patients. First, the scientists will have to create and test a physical part to make the nanoparticles, then test the physical properties of the reformulated drugs on cells and mice. 

“The whole idea, the outcome, is hopefully in about six months’ time we would come up with a product where we can get approval to try in patients to see if these things can deliver chloroquine and hydrochloroquines to patients at much, much lower doses, but get to the tissues much more efficiently,” he said. “And that hopefully will be a way to … make it more effective for COVID-19 patients.”

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