Radiation Therapy Has Been Used to Treat Pneumonia: Can It Help for COVID-19?
Everyone is eager for researchers to find an effective treatment for COVID-19 disease, and as early contenders like hydroxychloroquine are debunked, it’s becoming clear that the search is just beginning. Because new treatments can take years to develop, many are looking to existing methods that could be useful for COVID-19. New clinical trials suggest that looking not just to the future, but to the past, could be the way forward for researchers rushing to help the sickest patients.
It is common for some patients with the most serious cases of coronavirus to develop a more familiar disease: pneumonia. Patients with these infections can develop them either as a direct result of the virus, or through a secondary infection in which another virus or bacteria takes advantage of their weakened immune system. But while there are no approved medications or vaccines for coronavirus, there are a variety of effective treatments for pneumonia. And though X-rays are no longer used for this purpose today, radiotherapy is one option that deserves consideration.
In the first half of the 20th century, medical professionals routinely treated pneumonia (and a wide variety of other conditions) with X-ray therapy, and large studies conducted at the time found it to be effective in rapidly reversing both viral and bacterial pneumonia infections. In later decades, physicians began to prefer other methods of treating pneumonia, and that means there’s a major issue with considering radiotherapy as a treatment for COVID-19-related pneumonia: The last research on this approach’s effectiveness for pneumonia was published in 1946.
Why reconsider it now? As a result of the global pandemic, researchers have once again become interested in radiation as a potential treatment for pneumonia, and in particular, pneumonia caused by COVID-19 infections. Multiple human medical trials deploying low-dose radiation for this disease are already underway, and the first results to be published showed highly promising results. The study was administered to 10 patients between the ages of 64 and 94, all of whom needed supplemental oxygen and were visibly deteriorating in their condition. After receiving one low dose of radiation in both lungs, these patients demonstrated improvement in mental status and oxygenation within 24 hours, and they began to receive hospital discharges in 12 days.
It is critical to understand that this does not constitute medical advice. This preliminary data has not been peer-reviewed, and the trial took place on a very small study population. The trial results were published without full analysis in a journal designed to share results with the scientific community as quickly as possible. However, these exceptional results merit close attention, and we—along with thousands of medical professionals and their patients—are eagerly awaiting the next trial results.