Could pH hold the key to treating coronavirus?

June 17, 2020
Topics: Pediatric Research, Pulmonology

Ben Gaston Full Size Image
Benjamin Gaston, M.D.

With support from Riley Children’s Foundation, one researcher is testing the theory with an experimental drug

Anyone with a pool in their backyard knows the importance of getting pH levels just right. But what if pH could also play a role in combatting COVID? One Riley physician thinks that just may be the case, and he’s fast-tracking research he hopes will contribute to a new treatment.

Benjamin Gaston, M.D., is a pediatric pulmonologist whose research is typically focused on developing new therapies for breathing disorders like severe asthma and cystic fibrosis. 

Thanks to years of research, he developed and is testing an inhaled drug that appears to safely reduce inflammation in the airways, helping patients get more oxygen. It works by increasing pH – the measurement of how acidic or basic a liquid is.

Early during the coronavirus crisis, Dr. Gaston read a scientific paper by a group of researchers in Germany who found indications that they could stop COVID-19 from spreading inside the body. Their approach? Adjust the pH of healthy cells in the lungs, which managed to prevent COVID from co-opting them and wreaking havoc.

Back in Indianapolis, a lightbulb went off. 


Dr. Gaston wondered whether his experimental drug might be a useful tool against COVID. “We asked whether the treatment we were using for the airways would increase the pH inside the cells, not just outside,” said Dr. Gaston, who was recruited to a joint position at Riley Children’s Health and Indiana University School of Medicine in 2019 with support from Riley Children’s Foundation.

He and his team partnered with colleagues at IU to test the drug on coronavirus cells in the laboratory setting. The results were astounding. “It really shut it down completely,” he said.

Of course, a lab isn’t the same as the human body. The next step involves launching a clinical research study to determine whether the drug works in patients with the disease. Dr. Gaston is looking to collaborate with a pharmaceutical or biomedical company that has the resources and infrastructure to undertake that effort. It is critical that this be done safely and selectively. Changing pH can be dangerous if it is not done in the right place and in the right way. 

Fortunately, he has a head start. The drug previously received the green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for testing in people and has been shown safe in earlier studies for asthma and cystic fibrosis. Those are two major hurdles all experimental drugs must clear.

His latest discovery is also prompting him to examine how the drug might be used to treat other pediatric respiratory viruses.


Dr. Gaston’s research is undergirded by an endowed fund held at Riley Children’s Foundation. Billie Lou Wood, a philanthropic leader and Life Governor of Riley Children's Foundation, established the fund along with her husband, long time Eli Lilly and Company Chairman Richard D. Wood.

Because the fund is endowed, the original gift remains untouched, and investment income is available each year to support the work of a Riley physician or Riley-affiliated scientist. Though the Woods have passed away – Mrs. Wood in 2013 and her husband earlier this year – the endowment will continue to improve children’s health for generations to come.

As the beneficiary of the fund (known as an endowed chair), Dr. Gaston holds the title of the Billie Lou Wood Professor of Pediatrics. “An endowed fund is always important, and it is critical in times like these,” Dr. Gaston said. “Because of the philanthropic support available through the Billie Lou Wood Chair, I was able to pivot my research and respond to the needs of the moment. I didn’t have to wait to apply for grants or search for other ways to pay for experiments.”

While there’s still a lot of work to do for Dr. Gaston’s drug to make its way to patients, he is cautiously optimistic. And he’s grateful for the opportunity to contribute to our understanding of COVID-19.

“Going through this plague has created grief, and many of us have experienced the classic seven stages of grief: anger, depression, bargaining and so forth,” he said. “I think it’s been appreciated more and more that there is an eighth stage of grief, and that is meaning. Being able to be involved in research that may be clinically relevant is a stage of grief beyond acceptance and is one that creates meaning.”


If you are passionate about children’s health, we invite you to consider making a legacy gift through Riley Children’s Foundation. Gifts such as endowed funds may be established in your lifetime or through your estate plan. To learn more, contact Kate Brinkerhoff, JD, Vice President of Leadership Giving, at 317-808-8601 or

Riley Blogger

The Riley Blog is written and/or edited by members of the Riley Children's Foundation Communications Staff.

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