Natural killer cells used in experimental cancer treatments could fight the emerging virus.

Nationwide Children’s Hospital is one of the research organizations that has developed technologies that could be useful in the creation of a coronavirus-killing therapy. During a presentation March 5 at the hospital’s 2020 Therapeutics Showcase at The Blackwell hotel, NCH researcher Meisam Naeimi Kararoudi revealed that genetically engineered natural killer cells being created to fight cancer also can fight viruses such as coronavirus. 

Earlier this week, in fact, NCH submitted a proposal to  the  Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Servicesto pursue this possible treatment, said Dr. Dean Lee, founding director of NCH’s Cellular Therapy and Cancer Immunology Program and a pediatric hematology/oncology researcher. He said that NCH has also started the legal process to claim intellectual property rights related to fighting coronavirus with genetically engineered NK cells. No response has yet been received from the federal government. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported no coronavirus cases yet in Ohio, but the Ohio Department of Health didn’t receive a test kit from the CDC until Thursday, according to The Columbus Dispatch. Testing is expected to start this weekend. Earlier, potential cases were being deferred to the CDC.

NK cells are an innate part of a person’s immune system, according to the National Institutes of Health. Their function is to eliminate cells infected with cancer or viruses. Researchers at NCH have isolated NK cells and then expanded and replicated them to better fight cancers. To date NK cells have been used in multiple clinical trials around the country, including at Ohio State University, where cancer researchers are testing the therapy on myeloid leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome patients, according to the National Institutes of Health’s website.

 “NK cells have strong anti-viral activity,” explained Kararoudi during his presentation Thursday. The actual replication of NK cells can be done in two days, he says. Both Kararoudi and Lee say that even with NK cells currently stocked for research in Columbus, they would need to be replicated in much greater numbers to have the impact necessary to fight the virus as it spreads in the U.S. 

Kararoudi explains that it is unclear, yet, whether the use of NK cells to fight the coronavirus would be required to go through clinical trials. In the case of a pandemic, the FDA could waive normal procedures. It is also unclear, however, how long before such a treatment could be used.There are several other issues that still need addressed with the NK cell treatment, though, including dosaging, says Andrew M. Corris, a senior licensing associate at NCH’s Office of Technology and Commercialization.

Kararoudi is a post-doctoral fellow in NCH’s Cellular Therapy and Cancer Immunology Program. His presentation on Thursday dealt with how the genetically modified NK cells improve anti-tumor activity.

In the $8.3 billion emergency funding bill passed by Congress this week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will receive funding for the development of vaccines, among other emergency measures for protecting and treating the public as the virus spreads. In January, HHS announced expanded partnerships with Janssen Research and Development, a division of Johnson & Johnson, and two other entities to work on vaccines and therapies related to coronavirus.


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