Illustration of a torso of a patient showing the lungs being infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus, which can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)

Results from a Phase I/II study show a cell therapy developed by MiNK Therapeutics could be an effective treatment for patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) after COVID-19 or flu infection.

Although the research was early stage, the results showed that the survival rate of the patients given the therapy, all of whom were on mechanical ventilation in hospital, was significantly higher than expected and the incidence of bacterial pneumonia was reduced by 80% in the treated patients given the highest versus the lowest dose.

“Invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells, a unique T cell population, lend themselves for use as adoptive therapy due to diverse roles in orchestrating immune responses,” explained Justin Stebbing, a professor at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, and colleagues in Nature Communications.

U.S.-U.K. biotech MiNK Therapeutics originally developed an iNKT cell therapy called agenT-797 as a treatment for cancer. However, they realized that the allogeneic therapy, which is donor unrestricted, also had potential to treat patients with ARDS.

In the Phase I/II study, 21 patients were treated with three different doses of the agenT-797 cell therapy and their responses were compared with 20 matched controls.

No significant adverse events linked to the therapy were observed in the study and the outcomes of the patients treated with agenT-797 improved compared with control participants. For example, 30 days after the treatment, 70% of the treatment group were still alive versus 10% of the control group. Bacterial pneumonia was also significantly reduced in patients given the highest versus the lowest dose of cell therapy.

Five of the ventilated patients in the treatment group were also receiving oxygen therapy (veno-venous extracorporeal membrane oxygenation). In this group, 80% survived to 90 days and 60% to 120 days.

The researchers think the treatment was able to rescue exhausted T immune cells and help restore the patient’s anti-viral immunity and help them to fight off infection, as well as reducing damaging inflammation.

It is still early stages for many cell therapies, but MiNK is not the first company to research using cell therapy to treat ARDS, as academic research groups and companies such as Athersys and Pluristem Therapeutics have been working on similar treatments for the last few years.

“Despite a poor prognosis, critically ill patients treated with this therapy showed favorable mortality rates and those treated at the highest dose also had reduced rates of pneumonia, underscoring the potential application of iNKT cells, and agenT-797 in particular, in treating viral diseases and infections more broadly,” said Stebbing in a press statement.

“AgenT-797 was manufactured rapidly and as opposed to using patients’ own cells, it is ‘off-the-shelf’ and made from healthy donors’ cells. The potential of this therapy to be used across a number of severe infections warrants randomized controlled trials.”

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