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Cellular immunotherapy has been a breakthrough in the treatment of certain cancers, especially blood cancers. The therapy re-engineers a patient’s own immune cells in the lab to seek out and kill cancer cells. Now, two biotech companies, Celularity and the Infection Disease Research Institute (IDRI), are hoping the treatment is the answer to ending the COVID-19 pandemic.

The companies received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to launch phase 1/2 clinical trials to test a cellular immunotherapy using natural killer (NK) cells in adult patients with COVID-19.

NK cells are a type of white blood cell support the immune system by identifying and attacking virally-infected cells. Cellular immunotherapies utilizing NK cells have already shown promise in the treatment of certain types of cancer, but it is difficult to speculate if it could work to battle COVID-19 infection.

Dr. Daniel Abate-Daga

Dr. Daniel Abate-Daga, assistant member of the Department of Immunology

For typical cellular immunotherapy, a patient’s own immune cells are used. However, Celularity and IDRI are taking an allogeneic approach to the treatment, which means using donor NK cells that have been amplified in the lab in massive quantities. This also allows the companies to re-engineer the NK cells ahead of time and store the treatment until it is ready for use.

“NK cells are very effective in recognizing and eliminating infected cells. As a consequence, adoptively transferred NK cells may help contain the replication of the virus in infected patients. On the other hand, the immune response initiated by NK cells may exacerbate the symptoms of the disease,” said Dr. Daniel Abate-Daga, an immunologist at Moffitt Cancer Center. 

Each trial would accrue 85 to 100 patients from medical centers across the country. Celularity says initial results are expected 30 to 60 days after the first patients receive the cellular immunotherapy. Similar trials using NK cells are currently underway in China.