Testosterone could be the main reason so many men die from coronavirus, doctors say.
Twice as many men succumb to the disease as women, according to a scheme that has confused scientists around the world.
Although the theories put forward to explain the difference include that men are more likely to smoke and the possibility of genetic differences that weaken their immune systems than women, it could be simpler than that.
Prostate cancer experts have now uncovered intriguing clues that the sex hormone testosterone appears to play a crucial role in inadvertently helping the virus to infect cells.
Italian doctors discovered that prostate cancer patients receiving powerful drugs, called androgen deprivation therapy, to drastically reduce testosterone levels were four times less likely to die from Covid-19 than those who did didn’t take it.
Testosterone raises the levels of a protein called TMPRSS2, which is involved in prostate cancer. But scientists recently discovered that the coronavirus also uses this protein to “unlock” cells.
Stock image: A man takes an Enzalutamide pill, which works by blocking the effect of testosterone on prostate cancer cells. These treatments could be used to help patients with coronavirus
Doctors at the London Cancer Research Institute are now examining the link in more detail, while their counterparts at the University of California at Los Angeles are considering testosterone blocking drugs as potential Covid-19 therapy for hospital patients . Professor Nick James of the London ICR said it was “biologically plausible” that testosterone made men more susceptible to the coronavirus.
He explained, “One of the proteins that the virus seems to bind to in the lungs is TMPRSS2. This is a kind of lock and key element: being linked to this protein, it allows the virus to enter the cell.
“So you would expect that men on prostate cancer treatment who lower their testosterone levels should be protected [from coronavirus] compared to men who do not undergo such treatments – that is, most men. “
Professor James is currently examining data from approximately 8,000 NHS prostate cancer patients in a trial he is leading to see if those on hormone-reducing therapy are less likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19.
Using these drugs as a treatment for coronaviruses is a possibility, he said, but not to be taken lightly because of their serious side effects.
“Taking these drugs is the male equivalent of menopause,” he said. As a result, using them as a large-scale preventative was a non-starter. “You would almost certainly cause more harm than good,” he added.