SingHealth researchers conducting trials on drug to treat dengue

In 2020, Singapore saw its largest dengue outbreak, with 35,315 infected and at least 29 dying from it. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Researchers here are conducting clinical trials on a first-of-its-kind drug which, if successful, could treat dengue.

Professor Jenny Low, deputy clinical and scientific director at SingHealth Investigational Medicine Unit (IMU), which is running the trials, told The Straits Times that there is currently no drug to treat dengue specifically.

Instead, treatment focuses on supporting patients and treating the symptoms of dengue, such as fever and pain.

The new experimental drug works by preventing two proteins from the dengue virus - known as NS3 and NS4B - from interacting.

These proteins play a key role in allowing the virus to reproduce, said Prof Low, who is also senior consultant at the Singapore General Hospital's Department of Infectious Diseases, on Tuesday (Jan 18).

She added: "When dengue gets into our blood through an infected mosquito, it will attack our immune cells and start to multiply. So we hope the drug will stop the virus from multiplying, attacking more and more cells, causing damage to various organs… and resulting in complications we see in acute dengue infection."

Typical symptoms of dengue include fever, severe headache, nausea, vomiting and mild bleeding from the nose or gums.

In rare cases, dengue may progress to dengue haemorrhagic fever or dengue shock syndrome, which can lead to death.

The drug, which has a compound name of JNJ-64281802, was developed by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and data on how it works was first published in scientific journal Nature on Oct 6 last year.

It is administered orally in liquid form for five days, and is meant to be used as an intervention in the early stages of dengue.

The study, called Deng-I, will see 150 participants who are confirmed to be infected with dengue receiving standard treatment for the virus.

For five days, half of them will be given the new drug, while the other half will be given a placebo. They will be monitored to see how their conditions progress.

Prof Low said that all patients in the study will be reimbursed for their time and will receive the best current standard of care, regardless of whether they are given the placebo or drug.

Participants must be aged 21 to 55, had symptoms appearing no more than 48 hours before they enrol in the trial, and must not be pregnant.

Those who wish to participate may contact SingHealth IMU on 9622-5342, or send an e-mail to imu@singhealth.com.sg.

Prof Low said it is hard to tell when the drug may be ready, but noted that Covid-19 has shown that the process of developing new drugs can be streamlined and accelerated.

She added that if all goes well, the drug could possibly be ready in three to five years.

"Dengue will never go away. If anything, our problem with dengue will only get worse because of global warming and urbanisation," said Prof Low.

In 2020, Singapore saw its largest dengue outbreak, with 35,315 infected and at least 29 dying from it.

Prof Low added: "It's not a trivial disease, and the faster we get a therapeutic to treat dengue the better it will be for Singapore and the rest of the region."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.