Hyper inflammation of the lungs can increase disease severity, even in a young population lacking co-morbidities. These individuals, sometimes without prior medical history, end up at the ICU and require (invasive) respiratory support. It has been postulated that this is mediated by a dysregulated immune system, but a complete mechanistic understanding is currently lacking. However, it is believed that these serious COVID-19 infections are accompanied by an acute over reaction of the immune system, potentially damaging the lungs. This inflammation is triggered by signal molecules called cytokines (IL-6/IL-1 besides others). 


The main purpose of this KCE-funded trial, sponsored by Ghent University Hospital in collaboration with 16 participating clinical sites, is to investigate the effect of individually or simultaneously blocking IL-6 and IL-1 on critically ill patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 that are accompanied by an overreaction of the immune system.  
More details on the clinical trial can be found via the Belgian Healthcare Knowledge Center (KCE).  

Facts & Figures

Start date:
End date:
COVID19 call

Thematic area

Epidemic control 

Novel molecular insights and treatment options in COVID-19 patients to guide treatment of progressed disease stages, with a particular focus on patients with hypoxia that show signs of cytokine release syndrome. 


  • Downstream molecular analysis

VIB: €100.000 

  • Setup clinical trial

KCE: €2.43 million



Martin Guilliams • Yvan Saeys 

VIB-UGent-UZ Gent 

Bart Lambrecht

UGent-UZ Gent

Pieter Depuydt • Eva Van Braeckel • HiRUZ

Contribution to the project

Molecular downstream analysis: 

  • Cytokine and chemokine levels are determined at the VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research.  
  • the effect of therapy on transcriptional programming of immune cells (single cells RNA-seq) are assessed.  

Expected impact

This is the first head-to-head trial in which two distinct IL-6 blockers will be compared. This could severely reduce the pressure on the ICU in the short term and reduce morbidity of affected patients on the longer term.  

Prof. Bart Lambrecht highlights why cytokines are important targets of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2: “Research from China and Italy shows that more cytokines are present in patients that are being ventilated on intensive care. Sometimes these cytokines are present in such great numbers that we call it a ‘cytokine storm’. We hope that we can prevent patients from needing to go to intensive care by an early start of anti-cytokine therapy that might prevent or mitigate a cytokine storm.” 


Sofie Bekaert, Manager Translational Program