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The University of Minnesota Investigates Using NK Cells to Fight Covid-19

Oct 27, 2020 10:52:23 AM / by Stacy Matthews Branch, DVM, PhD

AdobeStock_333433227-1Researchers at the University of Minnesota expand to clinical trials with natural killer cells against the novel coronavirus.

Natural killer (NK) cells are part of the innate immune system and function to recognize and disable virus-infected and tumor cells. NK cell-based immunotherapy is increasingly studied as a viable approach to treat solid tumors and hematological cancers. A collaboration between the University of Minnesota and Fate Therapeutics began clinical trials for a novel “off-the-shelf” targeted NK-cell based cancer immunotherapy (FT516) that uses induced pluripotent stem cells, adult stem cells reprogrammed to have the capacity to differentiate into any cell type.

The University of Minnesota, with the collaboration of Fate Therapeutics, will study the safety and efficacy of FT516 to treat COVID-19 in patients who are hospitalized with hypoxia. The FT516 treatment will be reviewed because NK cells respond to viruses such as COVID-19 and become depleted in infected and ill patients. Participant recruitment has begun for a phase I study aimed at determining the maximum tolerated dose of FT516 for the treatment of COVID-19.

The study will be conducted one patient at a time until the first dose-limiting toxicity is observed. However, dose escalation will continue by one patient per cohort until the highest studied dose is reached. A concern with the immunotherapy is that an exaggerated immune response and inflammation is the basis of illness due to COVID-19 in some patients; therefore, the use of an immune system−enhancing treatment may further boost this type of response. However, the known suppression or depletion of NK cells suggests that the cell type may not be part of the pathological immune response.

The antiviral role of NK cells and its depletion in patients with hypoxic responses to COVID-19 bolster the promise of FT516 as immunotherapy for hospitalized patients with COVID-19. The therapy must be applied in such a way to affect viral replication while preventing health or life-threatening adverse immune response. Providing a ready-made stock of therapeutic stem cells could lead to efficacious treatment for critical COVID-19 cases. 

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University of Minnesota expands clinical investigation of engineered iPSC-derived natural killer cells, o., University of Minnesota, T., & University of Minnesota, T. (2020). University of Minnesota expands clinical investigation of engineered iPSC-derived natural killer cells, opening U.S. clinical trial for the treatment of COVID-19. Retrieved 9 September 2020, from 

University of Minnesota turns natural killer cells against COVID-19. (2020). Retrieved 9 September 2020, from

Topics: NK Cells, Vaccine Research, Infectious Disease

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