New drug to treat blood poisoning

For the first time, a drug has reduced deaths from severe sepsis, a life-threatening immune reaction occurring in 750,000 people in the United States each year.

Severe sepsis results from a person’s immune reaction, usually to a bloodborne infection. The current standard treatment for the illness includes antibiotics to fight the infection and intensive care to counter organ failure or very low blood pressure.

In a study of sepsis patients in medical centers worldwide, 30.8 percent of 840 patients receiving standard treatment died. Of 850 patients given the same care plus the new drug, only 24.7 percent died.

Because the benefits of this drug were so clear, the researchers opted to end the study early rather than enrolling additional patients as had been planned, says investigator Gordon R. Bernard of Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville. The New England Journal of Medicine published the results on the Web in advance of the paper’s scheduled publication in the March 8 issue.

People given the new medicine were slightly more likely to have problems with bleeding than were those given standard treatment, Bernard notes.

The compound, a genetically engineered version of an immune system chemical called activated protein C, decreases two common problems in sepsis: swelling and abnormal clotting of blood. If the drug is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Eli Lilly will market it as Zovant.

“In the past 15 years, several treatments designed to reduce the mortality rate associated with sepsis have failed,” says Michael A. Matthay of the University of California, San Francisco, in an editorial released along with the report. “At last, however, there has been progress.”

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