Cancer and a viral infections wouldn't seem to have much in common, but Incyte (NASDAQ:INCY) is testing its blood cancer drug Jakafi in patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The connection is that Jakafi helps patients with a blood cancers by inhibiting immune cells -- and some of the most deleterious effects of COVID-19 come from the immune system, which can go haywire while attacking the coronavirus and attack the patients' own cells. The immune system has a positive-feedback loop -- perpetuated by molecules called cytokines -- which can result in what's called a cytokine storm if the immune system isn't put in check.

Other companies with drugs that treat autoimmune diseases, such as Regeneron (NASDAQ:REGN) and Sanofi's (NASDAQ:SNY) Kevzara and Roche Holding's (OTC:RHHBY) Actemra are also being tested for their ability to dampen the immune complications in COVID-19 patients.

Patient and her doctors in a restricted area

Image source: Getty Images.

Incyte is working with the Food and Drug Administration to start a phase 3 clinical trial, dubbed Ruxcovid, to test Jakafi plus standard of care, compared to standard of care alone. Outside the U.S., the trial will be run by Incyte's partner Novartis.

Given the urgent nature of the disease, Incyte is making the drug available under an emergency expanded-access program in the U.S. for severe COVID-19 patients experiencing a cytokine storm.

"Our intent is to build on emerging evidence from independent studies to further establish the role [Jakafi] could play in balancing immune response to the infection and therefore potentially improving outcomes of patients with COVID-19 associated cytokine storm," said Steven Stein, Incyte's chief medical officer.