Hospital uses placenta cells to try to improve two COVID-19 patients

Holy Name Medical Center is trying to create more scenes of coronavirus-recovered patients heading home. Some are the result of receiving investigational drugs – pharmaceuticals not made for COVID-19 but known to attack the effects of the virus. The FDA greenlights such drugs for clinical trials or individual compassionate use.

Holy Name is the first in the nation to use the latest one: Pluristem. Cells from a placenta are injected into the arms and legs of a 49-year-old COVID-19 man on a ventilator. The working theory for the cells starts with the mother’s body not rejecting the fetus when giving birth.

“Probably, there’s something in the placenta, which might indeed be in the stromal cells, that calms down that immune reaction and tells the mother to not attack this embryo or fetus. So we’re actually using those properties of calm down the immune system, we’re using that now with COVID-19 trying to calm down that hyper-immune reaction that we’re seeing that a lot of patients have and that’s actually creating a lot of harm,” said Dr. Ravit Barkama, assistant vice president for clinical development at Holy Name Medical Center.

Barkama says the man is one of three critically ill patients without organ failure in the U.S. to receive the placenta cells for compassionate use.

“We are encouraged because the patients are doing better, but it’s still hard to say that it’s because of the cells. We need a significantly larger group of patients to be able to say that it’s effective,” Barkama said.

Holy Name used Pluristem two years ago in a clinical trial — it one of only a couple of hospitals in the country.

Robert Masterson is a diabetic that had wounds that wouldn’t heal and had to have limbs amputated. He received 30 stem cell injections.

“In essence what we’re injecting is going to recruit blood vessels, cells that are involved in the healing of wounds,” said Dr. John Rundback, director of the Interventional Institute at Holy Name.

At a checkup 16 months later, Masterson reports improvement.

“Well, I’ve been able to do the stationary bike every day, at least 10 to 15 minutes every day. I have less trouble walking. They’ve saved my feet, really,” he said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a miracle, but it’s definitely the future of medicine,” said Barkama.

For Barkama, that future could be now as Holy Name uses several therapies to improve the conditions of hundreds of coronavirus patients.

“The tool kit that the physicians had here at Holy Name and at other hospitals, that took kit was basically empty. We didn’t have treatments. At this point, we don’t have clearly proven treatments, but we have quite a bit of treatments that we at least perceive most of them as safe. So we would not try something investigational if it didn’t have a good safety profile,” she said.

In other words, if it didn’t have the potential of leading to more success stories.

“We’re injecting hope, not just cells,” Barkama added.