N.J. hospital is 1st in U.S to try placenta therapy on critically ill coronavirus patient

Using a cutting-edge experimental therapy, doctors at a Bergen County hospital on Saturday injected cells from a placenta into a critically ill coronavirus patient, in the hope they will bolster his immune system and save his life.

It was believed to be the first time the procedure was performed in the United States to combat COVID-19, said Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck.

The cells, drawn from a human placenta, will hopefully aid the man’s immune response and could potentially also heal tissue damage to his lungs, said Drs. Ravit Barkama and Thomas Birch, who are clinical researchers at the hospital.

The otherwise relatively healthy 49-year-old man was hospitalized more than three weeks ago with shortness of breath and a fever, and has been on a ventilator in intensive care since March 20. His wife signed off on the emergency treatment, which was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration on Friday, the doctors said.

“We’re trying anything and everything that makes sense, that can be applied in a rational way,” Birch said.

Cell therapy is one of many potential treatments for the coronavirus that doctors are scrambling to test as the country faces its greatest public health crisis in at least a century. Bergen County has been at the center of New Jersey’s outbreak, which has claimed the lives of 2,183 people and sickened more than 58,000.

Holy Name’s procedure aims to counterattack a common complication seen in coronavirus cases known as the cytokine storm. Under it, the body’s immune system produces such a strong response to the illness that it begins to damage itself — picture an army bombing a village captured by the enemy, and the destruction left behind.

The placenta cells may potentially quiet down that response, bringing down dangerous inflammation, the doctors said. The mechanism is not completely understood, but the cells may work similarly to how they protect a pregnancy from the mother’s own immune system, the doctors said.

“Why doesn’t the mother reject a placenta? Why doesn’t her immune system reject it?” Birch asked.

The procedure is championed by Pluristem Therapeutics, a Haifa, Israel, biotech company. On Tuesday, Pluristem announced that six critically ill COVID-19 patients in Israel had survived at least a week after receiving the cells, with four showing improved respiration.

Holy Name already has a relationship with Pluristem. The hospital is part of a clinical trial testing whether placenta cells are useful in treating chronic vascular problems that can lead to festering wounds and sometimes force amputations. The hospital has treated nine people in that trial — a “totally different” patient population that have wounds to the feet that will not heal, Barkama said.

The procedures for those patients and the man with COVID-19 were very similar, Barkama said. The placenta cells, which were taken following a live, healthy birth, were shipped Friday from Maryland frozen in liquid nitrogen. After being thawed, they were placed in 15 different syringes and injected into the muscles of the man’s body.

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