Jayakumar Rajadas, director of the Regenerative Biomaterials Lab (ADDReB) at Stanford University, works on developing therapeutic, and vaccine solutions aimed mainly toward helping people who are either unable to access or take the COVID-19 vaccine for medical reasons.
In an interview with indica, Rajadas said that when he first began addressing the problem of COVID-19 in January 2020, government grants were focused on vaccines and devices similar to a small inhaler to increase oxygen levels in patients.
Rajadas, who is best known for his groundbreaking work with a senior scientist in his lab, Venkata Pothineni, on drugs to effectively treat complex cases of Lyme disease, says many died of COVID-19 because they received insufficient amounts of oxygen sometimes even when medical support was given.
He pointed out the terrible chaos that ensued in 2020, with people dying in unprecedented numbers and everybody rushing to find a solution while funds and capacities for research were increasingly stretched thin.
“We were deeply affected by a text from a friend telling the story of her pregnant daughter contracting COVID-19 after delivering the baby but never being allowed to see her newborn son”. She messaged her mother repeatedly “Mom, they are not allowing me to see him… when are they going to?” Soon after she died in the hospital because her oxygen level dropped too low.
“There was no way to improve the oxygen levels and she died without even meeting her child, the child which she was waiting to see for so many months,” said Rajadas.
“To be honest, this broke my heart. It was then when I realized early on that oxygen was one of the primary factors, not just the virus,” he said. “There was an immediate acute oxygen depletion that led to other problems down the line. As a consequence, we developed another nano formulation for oxygenation which does not require cylinders to use it.”
[The SARS-CoV-2 virus directly infects the lungs, where oxygen is transferred from the air spaces into the blood vessels; therefore, most infected patients have low blood oxygen saturation pressure and impaired blood microcirculation, resulting in a condition called hypoxia. Unfortunately, many passed away due to hypoxia]
Having set a problem to address, Rajadas decided to work on solving the issue. With his wife Bella Jayakumar, he launched the biotech company ConViCure in early 2020. Currently, headed by Niki Santo, they are developing therapeutics, diagnostics, and researching multiple molecules to treat the disease including long hauler COVID-19.
A spin-off company of ConViCure called Swaza is currently developing nanofluid technology breathing aid designed to help with the acute oxygen loss seen in previous waves of COVID19.
“You can just administer it into a patient’s mouth as a ( nebulized fluid) and it prevents them from ending up on mechanical ventilation,” Rajadas said, showing the device. “It [should] raise the oxygen level very reliably. [That] is what we have discovered, but trials need to be conducted and are currently being prepared.”
ConViCure has also formulated an oral drug to fight COVID-19 based on the natural compound curcumin, the ingredient in turmeric shown to have strong anti-oxidant properties.
Rajadas was so moved by an urge to help people in need and convinced about the potential of these drugs that he heavily contributed out of his private funds to the founding capital of ConViCure, to support the important research and make it clinically available as soon as possible. The novel oxygen Nano formulation, later separated into the Swaza brand, additionally received close to $1.6 million in funding and continues to develop and seek additional funding for the fluid for final approval.
Furthermore, he immediately applied for a lot of grants through his laboratory and wrote to many senior faculties when the pandemic struck.
“During that time the viability of my lab was uncertain due to many downstream effects of the pandemic and my programs were at risk of shutting down,” Rajadas said. Before joining Stanford, Rajadas had served as the founding chair of the Bio-organic and Neurochemistry Division at the Central Leather Research Institute Chennai, India, where he was responsible for both the organization and management of the division.
“It was the most difficult and challenging times in the last two years,” he said after a pause, adding, “Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of people to this disease. But going forward we need to protect people as best as we can with the latest technology”.
Rajadas sounded adamant about the fact that the coronavirus could potentially reemerge.
“I still think we need to ensure that we are better prepared to face it, in case it returns,” he said, pointing out a part of the population his team’s medication can especially help.
“Some people cannot be vaccinated – for example in [the case of] pregnancy or in people with certain serious health issues,” he said. “Swaza appears promising to alleviate severe discomfort and provide similar protection from death by oxygen depletion for unvaccinated patients as vaccinated people are often protected from severe courses of COVID-19. A convenient nebulizer device, delivering the oxygen in a way it can effectively pass through the mucus.”
Finally, he said his team is taking things even further.
“We tried to understand why and how some people develop long COVID,” Rajadas said. “[This includes finding out] what the materials are which accumulate in the lungs and the rest of the body triggering this phenomenon”
Rajadas hopes that with these diverse ideas, his team can make a dent in COVID-19 and help the world return to a state before the pandemic.