Doctors in New Jersey are battling the coronavirus in one 49-year-old male patient with a revolutionary new treatment — injections of cells from babies’ placentas.
The procedure, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration only on Friday, was carried out Saturday and may be the first of its kind to take place in the entire US.
“We’re trying anything and everything that makes sense that can be applied in a rational way,” Dr. Thomas Birch, of Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, tells NJ.com.
The cells — drawn from a newborn’s placenta and shipped from a facility in Maryland to the New Jersey medical center frozen in liquid nitrogen — could aid the coronavirus sufferer’s immune system.
They could also potentially heal tissue damage to his lungs.
The otherwise relatively healthy man was hospitalized more than three weeks ago with shortness of breath and a fever. His condition was so severe, he was placed on a ventilator in the intensive care unit on March 20.
His wife agreed to the state-of-the-art emergency treatment in a desperate bid to save her husband from death.
The placenta-based cell therapy at Holy Name aims to counteract a common complication in coronavirus cases known as the cytokine storm. When it happens, the body’s immune system produces such a strong response that it begins to damage itself.
After the out-of-state placenta cells were thawed from the liquid nitrogen, they were placed in 15 different syringes and injected into the muscles of the virus sufferer’s body.
The cells from the placenta may potentially tamper down that response by lowering inflammation. It’s not completely understood how the mechanism works, but the cells may operate similarly to how they protect a fetus from the mother’s own immune cells, according to Birch and Dr. Ravit Barkama, his fellow physician working on the technique.
“The process itself is very simple,” Barkama says. “It’s the physiology around it that is very complicated.”
The experimental therapy is championed by Pluristem Therapeutics, a biotech company based in Haifa, Israel. Last Tuesday, Pluristem announced that six critically ill coronavirus patients in the Middle Eastern country had survived at least a week after receiving the cells. Four of them showed improved respiration.
The working relationship between Pluristem and Holy Name had been fostered over a non-coronavirus-related clinical trial, which is testing whether placenta cells are helpful in treating chronic vascular problems that could lead to festering wounds and sometimes forced amputations. Holy Name has treated nine people in that trial — a “totally different” patient population, with wounds on the feet that will not heal, Barkama says.
The procedures for these cardiovascular cases are very similar to the ones being used on the man with COVID-19.
If everything goes to plan, the Teaneck patient’s inflammation of the lungs will reduce over the coming week. Birch and Barkama add that the procedure appears to be safe and have few side effects. However, the man is under constant monitoring because of his critical condition.
Last week, The Post outlined many of the other experimental treatments that physicians and scientists are trying in the pandemic. They include potential vaccines and the controversial usage of malaria medications such as hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine.