This drug could be the next acid-reflux cure

It’s not every day that scientists race to find out what happened to a beloved drug. But that’s exactly what happened when the popular treatment for acid reflux failed in clinical trials.

For decades, many patients simply took acid blockers — primarily a drug called lansoprazole — to relieve their regular bouts of heartburn. But research in recent years suggests that lansoprazole may help people with certain gastrointestinal conditions at the same time it can also cause heart palpitations in some patients.

Covid, as the new treatment is known, is being tested in Phase II clinical trials — the last part of the trial.

“It’s a rare patient for whom conventional medical treatments aren’t very helpful,” said Shelley Gabay, a gastroenterologist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

If successful, an everyday 20-milligram dose of Covid — which is free and will be available over the counter — will prove to be a major breakthrough for thousands of patients like Sammy Barry, a manager at a Washington, D.C., brewery. He began using the drug for his acid reflux four years ago when he was about 50, and the results were immediately, and unexpectedly, life-changing. “It pretty much cured me,” Barry said. “It kind of gives me more energy.”

Barry and others with acid reflux started testing Covid in the summer, following a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine and analyzed by a pharmaceutical partner called Cadence Pharmaceuticals.

More than a million Americans currently take acid blockers, Gabay said. Many patients like Barry use the drugs to help with the frequent, and uncomfortable, symptoms of acid reflux — like pain in the esophagus or discomfort in the chest. Others like Jimmy Perez, an ice cream seller in New York City, use the drugs to treat a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation.

Doctors, scientists and patients are excited by the science behind Covid. But many people are even more excited by the life-changing possibility that if the drug succeeds, it will solve a widespread, stubborn medical problem.

Indeed, no one really knows how many people take acid blockers for acid reflux or why. In 1990, the Food and Drug Administration set aside $1.5 million to study whether the drugs worked in people who weren’t pre-cancerous and who had not previously received an operation to treat acid reflux. And those studies failed, ultimately finding that the drugs did not alleviate symptoms in these patients.

Despite that result, some doctors remain certain that the drugs are beneficial for most acid reflux sufferers. On Tuesday, the New England Journal of Medicine published a detailed analysis of the millions of doctors, surgeons and patients who use acid blockers.

In a statement released after the Nov. 21 publication of the New England Journal of Medicine study, Dr. Arthur Wang, an anesthesiologist and director of neurology for Parkland Health & Hospital System in Dallas, said that he was especially pleased to see the new data that suggest acid blockers may work for a broader spectrum of patients — that anyone might benefit.

“Although the FDA had to stop their studies, we have a lot of irrefutable data from a lot of doctors,” he said.

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