Photo courtesy of Athersys
CLEVELAND, Ohio — The World Health Organization considers Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, or "ARDS," to be the leading cause of death among COVID-19 infected patients.
A Cleveland-based biotechnology company is holding clinical trials to see if its stem cell therapy could help COVID-19 induced ARDS patients.
Since 1995, Athersys has worked on developing medicines that could fill unmet medical needs to treat the sickest critical care patients.
"Whether it be a stroke or a trauma, Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, there’s really not much that physicians can do to really help patients through that. Their options, if you will, the medicines you can give patients or the procedures you can do are pretty limited, so a lot of patients basically are at very high risk of not making it or, again, suffering from significant disability," said Athersys CEO Gil Van Bokkelen.
Van Bokkelen says for the last few years, Athersys has focused on creating a stem cell therapy for people suffering from ARDS.
The American Lung Association defines ARDS as a life-threatening injury where fluid leaks into the lungs, making it difficult to breathe due to a lack of oxygen.
“Unfortunately, not enough is being done right now to help the patients that are becoming seriously or critically ill and frankly, that’s because people in the past have tried to develop medicines for ARDS and they’ve all failed,” said Van Bokkelen.
Most people who become diagnosed with ARDS are already in the hospital for trauma or illness and many end up on a ventilator in the ICU.
The company’s patented therapy is called “MultiStem.” Van Bokkelen says recent clinical trial results showed that a single dose of MultiStem rapidly improved lung function, reduced mortality, lowered the amount of days spent in the ICU on a ventilator, and increased patients’ functional independence after leaving the hospital.
“All of those things basically gave us a lot of confidence that MultiStem, in this properly conducted randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial, was providing real evidence that we could help patients that right now their only intervention is to put them on a ventilator, and that was pretty exciting, and actually led to our third fast track designation from the FDA,” said Van Bokkelen.
Van Bokkelen is not surprised many people are dying from COVID-19 induced ARDS.
“We kind of anticipated when we saw the news about this new coronavirus and the patients were becoming seriously and critically ill, that it might actually result in a lot of patients that were developing ARDS, and sure enough, that’s exactly what’s happened. Unfortunately, where we’ve seen now millions of patients around the world that have actually become diagnosed with Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. It’s been very problematic,” he said.
Athersys hopes to help fix the problem.
In May, University Hospitals became the first site for a “MultiStem Administration for COVID-19 Induced Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome” clinical trial.
“It’s been going well. I mean, UH is very active. We got a number of things that are going on that basically give us a lot of hope for this,”said Van Bokkelen.
There’s a long road ahead to advance the technology through government agencies, but Van Bokkelen is optimistic.
“We think we can make a difference and we’re committed to that and I’m confident that we’re going to deliver on that," he said.