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CLEVELAND (WJW) — An Ohio based biotechnology company is working with the FDA to fast track an experimental treatment for COVID-19 that could not only save lives, but also quality of life.

Athersys, Inc., which is located in Cleveland, Ohio already had clinical trials underway using a “MultiStem” therapy to treat acute respiratory distress syndrome, also known as ARDS.

The morbidity and mortality rate from ARDS is extremely high, especially among older patients with underlying health conditions.

“ARDS is actually the primary cause of death for patients that are dying in the wake of COVID-19 infection and it’s also the reason patients have to be hospitalized and placed on a ventilator,” said Dr. Gil Van Bokkelen, Chairman and CEO, Athersys, Inc.  

Clinical trials have shown that a single dose of MultiStem could actually turn things around very quickly.

MultiStem is created using a “special class” of stem cells from very healthy, screened, consenting adults.

Just like Type O blood is a universal donor for blood types, these cells undergo a process that makes them work in the same way.

“That’s essentially what we have in stem cell form, these stem cells can be produced on a very large scale and we can administer them essentially off the shelf,” said Dr. Van Bokkelen.

Once the cells are introduced into the patients body they then go right to the area and begin to heal the patients lungs.

“When we administer these cells we have years and years of evidence that shows these cells are capable of homing to sites of tissue damage and inflammation and injury,” said Dr. Van Bokkelen, “Data shows when patients got this MultiStem within the first four days of being placed on a ventilator that there was remarkable evidence of reduced mortality, improved pulmonary function or lung function, and much shorter time in the ICU.”

Not only that, but patients treated with MultiStem faired much better in the long term, and in a majority of cases lung damage or scarring caused by ventilators was also healed giving them a better quality of life.

Athersys had just announced results from their studies and were fast-tracked by the FDA to enter Phase 3 of clinical trials in January when the COVID-19 pandemic started. 

Dr. Van Bokkelen says, that’s when they were contacted by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority or BARDA, which is an office within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Now with cooperation from the FDA and others including Cleveland area hospitals, MultiStem will begin being tested on COVID-19 patients within weeks.

Dr. Van Bokkelen and everyone at Athersys believes they are in the right place at the right time and grateful for the opportunity to save lives.

“We’ve got 90 employees here and they people who are extraordinarily committed to make a difference in the lives of patients that need help,” said Dr. Van Bokkelen.