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Miami Cancer Institute Researchers Pivot to Fight COVID-19

Physician scientists at Miami Cancer Institute are leveraging their research expertise and clinical technology to develop novel treatments for COVID-19. Jump-starting new studies in a matter of weeks, these researchers are now evaluating the effectiveness of existing cancer drugs, umbilical cord blood and convalescent plasma, among other therapies, against the coronavirus.

“During this very difficult time for our nation and the world, we are excited to be part of finding potential treatments for COVID-19,” said Michael J. Zinner, M.D. Dr. Zinner is CEO and executive medical director of Miami Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida. “Our physicians, particularly oncologists, are in a unique position to perform COVID-19 research.”

Cancer patients often battle viral infections and have immune system problems that are similar to those suffered by COVID-19 patients, making drugs typically used to treat these issues of interest to COVID-19 researchers.

“We are very hopeful that we will find a way to help those suffering from the effects of COVID-19 and ultimately prevent deaths,” said Guenther Koehne, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director and chief of Blood & Marrow Transplant, Hematologic Oncology and Benign Hematology at Miami Cancer Institute.

Dr. Koehne has parlayed his expertise in stem cell transplantation and immunotherapy to treat COVID-19 patients. He is the principal investigator of several current trials.

At the onset of the pandemic, under an emergency approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Koehne and his co-investigator, Javier Pérez-Fernández, M.D., administered a groundbreaking new treatment to three COVID-19 patients through intravenous infusions of experimental mesenchymal stem cells. These cells, derived from umbilical cord lining, aid healing by regenerating damaged lung tissue.

All three patients were critically ill and on ventilation support. Within days of the infusion, they showed reduction of their oxygen requirement from 100 percent to less than 50 percent. They also showed by a significant reduction in levels of various key circulating inflammatory markers.

“The remarkable ability of these mesenchymal cells to mitigate inflammatory processes holds great promise for COVID-19 patients as well as for people with many other illnesses,” said Dr. Koehne.

Currently, Miami Cancer Institute researchers are evaluating the effectiveness of other treatments:

  • the role of lymphocyte levels in COVID-19 progression,
  • the use of Selinexor, an existing oral cancer drug, to prevent an out-of-control immune response known as a cytokine storm,
  • plasma transplants from recovered COVID-19 patients into sick patients, as a means of boosting antibodies, and
  • the effectiveness of thoracic radiotherapy in reducing the body’s inflammatory response.

Thanks to Miami Cancer Institute’s robust clinical trials program, researchers have been able to prioritize treatment and interventions for COVID-19 without a break in their regular cancer clinical trial schedule.

The Institute offers trials for all types of cancer, including brain, breast, lung, ovarian, pancreatic and prostate cancer, in addition to multiple myeloma, leukemia and others. Both adult and pediatric patients participate in trials. “We have about 150 therapeutic studies open at the moment,” said Scott Lipkin, DPM, chief research officer.

Clinical research trials can be lifesaving for many cancer patients. But the COVID-19 pandemic has some cancer patients wondering if they are still eligible to participate in current clinical trials or, if they are already participating in one, whether they should continue.

The simple answer is yes ? under the right circumstances, said Dr. Lipkin. “Oncology integrates cutting-edge research into everyday clinical care more than any other subspecialty. Often, experimental drugs represent the latest and best hope when there are no other options left for a patient. It’s important to mindfully continue therapeutic clinical research during these times.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a focus on special precautions. While clinical trials already must meet strict federal regulations, the FDA has issued COVID-19 recommendations that principal investigators and treating physicians consider for each patient participating in a trial.

“We have a great, dedicated and compassionate team of employees,” Dr. Lipkin said. “Our clinical staff, which includes research and infusion nurses and research coordinators and assistants, are not only working together to provide the best care for our clinical trial patients but are also assisting in employee health screenings and patient entry screenings. We are here for those who need us.”

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