BOSTON – Dr. Sotirios Tsimikas, Professor of Medicine/Cardiology and Director of Vascular Medicine, Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center, Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, University of California – San Diego spoke with The National Herald about his research and development of his oral drug for COVID-19. The work is on track. “The drug has already been to phase 1 and 2 studies for non-COVID indications. We raised $2.5M and are now in midst of the manufacturing and formulation of the drug and hope to begin a clinical trial in July,” he said.
“It came out through a kind of serendipity. We were studying 300 off-patent compounds for effects on heart inflammation, and one of my research collaborators, Philip Gordts, realized it also had effects on certain parasites and effects on lung fibrosis. He had the brilliant idea to test it on COVID in cell culture and it is 1000 times more potent than the approved drug Remdesivir. So we applied for a patent and developed Covicept to take it to clinical trials.”
Regarding the effectiveness of the drug. Dr. Tsimikas said “we know the drug is very portent and kills SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the test tube. If the upcoming trial in 150 patients shows it can reduce viral load, then we need to do a phase 3 trial to prove it can treat the disease. The advantage of this drug is that it is oral, taken once a day, so it would be applicable to every patient, not just those who are hospitalized. It also works in human cells to prevent viral replication, not on the virus itself, so the virus can't escape by mutating itself, like you see from recent news events. It also works on all RNA viruses, like Zika that causes microcephaly in newborns, and there are over 300 such viruses. The drug can be stockpiled by governments for future new RNA viruses that emerge.”
Dr. Tsimikas added regarding the current drugs: “The vaccines work and have few side effects. The rate of hospitalization and dying is almost zero for those vaccinated, so I urge everyone to get vaccinated. I have already been vaccinated.”
Dr. Tsimikas was born in Megaron of Grevena Greece. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 9 with his parents Christos and Kleanthi in 1972. They were looking for a better life for themselves and their children. Dr. Tsimikas adores his parents and he says “if they didn't come here I wouldn't have become what I became,” His parents worked two jobs to be able to survive and educate their children. His wife Dr. Athena Fillis-Tsimikas is a prominent endocrinologist and Director of the Whitter Diabetes Institute. They have two children Christos and Alexia.
Dr. Tsimikas, who has established three companies, said, “currently I am Professor of Medicine and Director of Vascular Medicine at the University of California-San Diego and work as a physician scientist. Covicept Therapeutics is one of three companies that I have founded based on my research. The other two are Oxitope Inc., which is working to bring to the clinic oxidation-specific `natural' antibodies for a variety of age-related diseases, including heart disease, stroke, liver fibrosis, bone metabolism, and pain syndromes. We discovered antibodies that we all have that have evolved through millennia of evolution but are present in inadequate amounts. We have characterized these, converted them to potential pharmaceuticals, and are now in late pre-clinical testing. The second company is Kleanthi Diagnostics, named after my mother who has such a beautiful name – that already has a blood test on the market, called OxPL-apoB, that if elevated predicts the risk of heart disease or aortic valve stenosis, before it occurs, so that preventative measures can be put in place.”
Aske what attracted him to the medical profession, Dr. Tsimikas said “one of my first influences in late middle school and high school were my parents, particularly my father Christos. They are from a small village in Greece, Megaron, with only elementary school education. Despite this, they understood very well the importance of an education and striving to provide a better life for their children than their own. Having one of your children become a physician is probably the highest thing a parent from such a background can wish for. They emphasized the important role a physician plays in society and in return the personal and professional rewards that come with this. They key thing was I listened to them and more importantly, believed them, which led to me looking at being a physician.”
He added that, “initially, I was thinking to become an archeologist as the idea of discovering ancient secrets was very enticing. However, the hard realities of pursuing this profession brought me back to more mundane aspirations, like medicine. I was always a top student and as I got exposed to biological sciences in high school the idea of going in to medicine and research took shape and my path was then set to go to Boston College as a pre-med student. I knew in high school that I wanted to become a physician, but also a scientist. This usually means one works at a university which involves teaching, research, and clinical practice, which is what I ultimately accomplished.”
He said about choosing to become a cardiologist that, “when I graduated Boston College, I attended University of Massachusetts Medical School. It had many famous cardiologists and excellent teachers and mentors, whose influence was quite strong. Additionally, the field of cardiology had worked out many of the fundamental issues related to the physiology of heart disease, so it was easy to understand. Importantly at that time (late 1980s) the field of cardiology had worked out many therapies, but not all, so a physician could feel good that he/she could help the patients. Because not everything was discovered, however, there was still much opportunity to learn and invent new things through research, which was very attractive to me.”
When asked which are some of the most common illness of the heart and how they can be prevented, Dr. Tsimiksas said, “heart disease occurs due to a variety of etiologies, including congenital issues (people can be born with heart disease), genetic causality (predisposition due to inheritance of certain traits, such as high cholesterol), or acquired causes (poor diet leading to obesity and complications, such diabetes and high blood pressure). Many congenital problems can now be repaired by operations that fix the underlying problem (such as holes in the heart). Many risk factors can now be treated with medications. If one develops valve leakage or coronary artery disease with blockages, these can be treated with bypass surgery or by angioplasty. A new recent development is the ability to place new valves using techniques that don't involve open heart surgery, so that the risk is lower and more high-risk patients can benefit from this that otherwise would be denied surgery.”
Dr. Tsimiksas added that, “coronary artery disease often develops without the patient knowing and can transition from a quiescent state to one of acute thrombosis and cause a heart attack and sudden death. This is seen in the lay media every few months when a famous person has a heart attack or dies out of the blue. Patients with serious arrhythmias can also have severe complications. The lesson here is to have regular doctor visits and control the risk factors that can be controlled to minimize this risk.”
Asked about heart diseases which are not treatable, he said “most heart diseases can be ameliorated but we don't have cures for many. There are certain congenital abnormalities that can't be easily repaired. Patients can develop certain types of heart failure (due to viruses, a common one now is due to COVID-19) or heart damage after a heart attack that are often, but not always, difficult to treat.”
He feels very happy every time he makes an person well, saying, “it's a great privilege being a physician, and the greatest satisfaction is knowing you helped a fellow human being in their time of greatest need. I am an interventional cardiologist, those physicians that come in at 3 AM to take care of heart attack patients. There is no monetary value that can be placed on this and the simple thank you of a patient makes your whole day feel wonderful.”
Dr. Tsimikas visits Greece very often – “every summer,” he said. Athena's parents have a home in Plataria of Thesprotia and we visit every year. Of course, no trip is without a visit to my home village Megaron of Grevena, which has a very special place in my heart.”