Seattle’s Infectious Disease Research Institute has received seven-figure funding to begin human trials on a potentially groundbreaking novel coronavirus treatment.

The study could launch within weeks, take about 11 months to complete, and enroll about 100 patients diagnosed with a COVID-19 infection that’s causing moderate to severe pneumonia. It would deploy cancer-fighting NK-cells as an immunotherapy treatment for the coronavirus rather than the current approach of antiviral medication.

“Antivirals try to kill the virus itself but unfortunately most act in a way that’s pretty slow,’’ Dr. Corey Casper, CEO of the institute, told The Seattle Times in an interview Thursday. “When COVID-19 patients get very sick in the hospital, the problem is not just due to the virus, but the body trying to fight that virus. In some of the organs like the lungs, there’s ‘friendly fire’ so to speak. The inflammation that occurs when the body tries to fight that damage sets off damage.’’

But the proposed immunotherapy approach “gives patients back a type of immune cell called a ‘natural killer’ cell – an NK-cell.

“It gives them an infusion of these NK-cells and their whole job is to find sites of active viral infection in your organs, kill the virus, and reduce the damage or inflammation that’s being done in those organs.’’

The treatment is currently used safely in early clinical trials for lymphoma, leukemia and multiple-myeloma and pioneered by New Jersey-based biotech company Celularity, which will provide the funding for the COVID-19 trials.

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Celularity has filed an investigational new drug application with the FDA, which would have to approve the trials going ahead at medical centers nationwide. That typically takes about seven weeks, but Casper hopes to cut that significantly and said – if all goes well – researchers should start seeing within a couple of weeks after that whether patients are responding positively.

Casper said about half of the Infectious Disease Research Institute’s 55 employees will be devoted to the trials.

Reports out of China say initial cases of severe COVID-19 infection were found to be related to lower counts of NK-cells.

“It’s been known for some time that these are pretty important immune cells in that fight,’’ Casper said. “The most severe cases in China have the lowest amounts of these NK-cells in their blood. What the hypothesis is here is that you can give people an infusion of these NK-cells and … kill the virus and begin to orchestrate an effective immune response that doesn’t set off a series of harmful inflammation events.’’

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