Miami Cancer Institute Researchers Pivot to Fight COVID-19

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

“During this very difficult time for our nation and theworld, 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 directorof Miami Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida. “Ourphysicians, particularly oncologists, are in a unique position to performCOVID-19 research.”

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

“We are very hopeful that we will find a way to helpthose 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 CancerInstitute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Miami Cancer Institute’s robust clinical trialsprogram, researchers have been able to prioritize treatment and interventionsfor 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, inaddition to multiple myeloma, leukemia and others. Both adult and pediatricpatients participate in trials. “We have about 150 therapeutic studies open atthe moment,” said Scott Lipkin, DPM, chief research officer.

Clinical research trials can be lifesaving for manycancer patients. But the COVID-19 pandemic has some cancer patients wonderingif they are still eligible to participate in current clinical trials or, ifthey 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 everydayclinical care more than any other subspecialty. Often, experimental drugsrepresent the latest and best hope when there are no other options left for apatient. It’s important to mindfully continue therapeutic clinical research duringthese times.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a focus on specialprecautions. While clinical trials already must meet strict federalregulations, the FDA has issued COVID-19 recommendations that principalinvestigators and treating physicians consider for each patient participatingin a trial.

“We have a great, dedicated and compassionate team ofemployees,” Dr. Lipkin said. “Our clinical staff, which includes research andinfusion nurses and research coordinators and assistants, are not only workingtogether to provide the best care for our clinical trial patients but are alsoassisting in employee health screenings and patient entry screenings. We arehere for those who need us.”

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With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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