Therapy developed with CIRM award used in new clinical trial for COVID-19

Dr. Joshua Rhein, Assistant Professor of Medicine in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Medicine
Image Credit: University of Minnesota

While doctors are still trying to better understand how to treat some of the most severe cases of COVID-19, researchers are looking at their current scientific “toolkit” to see if any potential therapies for other diseases could also help treat patients with COVID-19. One example of this is a treatment developed by Fate Therapeutics called FT516, which received support in its early stages from a Late Stage Preclinical grant awarded by CIRM.

FT516 uses induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are a kind of stem cell made from reprogrammed skin or blood cells. These newly made stem cells have the potential to become any kind of cell in the body. For FT516, iPSCs are transformed into natural killer (NK) cells, which are a type of white blood cell that are a vital part of the immune system and play a role in fighting off viral infections.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, FT516 was used in a clinical trial to treat patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and B-cell lymphoma, which are two different kinds of blood cancer.

Due to the natural ability of NK cells to fight off viruses, it is believed that FT516 may also help play a role in diminishing viral replication of the novel coronavirus in COVID-19 patients. In fact, Fate Therapeutics, in partnership with the University of Minnesota, has treated their first COVID-19 patient with FT516 in a new clinical trial.

In a news release, Dr. Joshua Rhein, Physician at the University of Minnesota running the trial site, elaborates on how FT516 could help COVID-19 patients.

“The medical research community has been mobilized to meet the unique challenges that COVID-19 presents. There are limited treatment options for COVID-19, and we have been inundated daily with reports of varying quality describing the potential of numerous therapies. We know that NK cells play an important role in responding to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, and that these cells often become depleted in infected patients. Our intent is to replenish NK cells in order to restore a functional immune system and directly target the virus.”

In its own response to the coronavirus pandemic, CIRM has funded three clinical trials as part of $5 million in emergency funding for COVID-19 related projects. They include the following: a convalescent plasma study conducted by Dr. John Zaia at City of Hope, a treatment for acute respiratory distress syndrome (a serious and lethal consequence of COVID-19) conducted by Dr. Michael Matthay at UCSF, and a study that also uses NK cells to treat COVID-19 patients conducted by Dr. Xiaokui Zhang at Celularity Inc.  Visit our dashboard page to learn more about these clinical projects.

An off-the-shelf cancer killer

iPS Cell: Photo from the lab of Kathrin Plath at UCLA

One of the hottest areas in cancer research right now is the use of CAR-T treatments. These use the patient’s own re-engineered immune system cells to target and kill the tumor. But the thing that makes it so appealing – using the patient’s own cells – also makes it really complicated and expensive. Creating a custom-made therapy from each patient’s own cells takes time and costs a lot of money. But now a new approach could change that.

Fate Therapeutics has developed an off-the-shelf therapy (thanks to CIRM funding) that could, theoretically, be stored at hospitals and clinics around the country and used whenever it’s needed for anyone who needs it.

At this year’s meeting of the American Society of Hematology (ASH) Fate announced that the first patient treated with this new approach seems to be doing very well. The patient had acute myeloid leukemia and wasn’t responding to conventional treatments. However, following treatment with Fate’s FT516 the patient responded quickly and – according to STAT News’ Adam Feuerstein – was able to leave the hospital and spend Thanksgiving with his family.

Equally impressive is that 42 days after being treated with FT516, the man showed no signs of leukemia in either his bone marrow or blood.

FT516 is designed to provide a one-two combination attack on cancer. It’s made up of the wonderfully named natural killer (NK) cells, which are a critical part of our immune system defenses against cancer. These NK cells are created by using the iPSC process and have been genetically modified to express a protein that boosts their cancer-killing abilities.

Because these cells are manufactured they can, if effective, be produced in large numbers and stored for whenever needed. That would not only dramatically reduce costs but also make them more widely available when they are needed.

This is only one patient and the follow-up is still relatively short. Even so, the results are encouraging and certainly give hope that Fate is on to something big. We’ll be keeping track and let you know how things progress.