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Coronavirus Update: N.J. Company Developing 'Natural Killer Cells' Treatment

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- As the coronavirus spreads, there's a huge rush to find effective treatments. Vaccines are a long way off and antivirals, so far, have been ineffective.

But as CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez found out, a local company may have a treatment, using cells.

Eighty percent of people who get the coronavirus recover all on their own or don't even realize they're infected. What's the difference between those people and those who get deathly ill, aside from underlying illness?

It's probably cells in their immune system and there's a drug to fix that.

CORONAVIRUS: CDC Latest | NY Health Dept. | NYC Health Dept. | NY Hotline: 1-888-364-3065 | NJ Health Dept. | NJ Hotline: 1-800-222-1222 | CT Hotline: 211

It looks a little like a scene from a sci-fi movie -- row upon row of tanks of liquid nitrogen tanked chilled to 330 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. What's not fiction, though, is what's frozen in the liquid nitrogen -- millions of human cells that may just be the treatment for coronavirus illness, called COVID-19, that doctors have been searching for.

"Not everybody who is exposed to COVID-19 gets sick. That suggests that there is something fundamental about them that makes those who get sick and those who don't get sick different, and we know that is their immune systems," said Dr. Robert Hariri, CEO of cell therapy company Celularity.


Hariri is a renowned cell biologist and founder of the New Jersey company, which has developed a source of immune cells called "natural killer cells." In labs, Celularity has isolated, purified, and vastly multiplied huge numbers of natural killer cells derived from human placentas.

"Natural killer cells are designed by nature in order to protect us from things like viral infections," Dr. Hariri said. "Resident in the placenta, at the end of birth, are these remarkable cells that retain the ability to provide defense against viral infected cells and even cancer."

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Celularity has already been testing its natural killer cells against cancer in human trials where they've proven to be safe and well tolerated. The company has just filed an IND, an Investigational New Drug application, with the Food and Drug Administration to test them against COVID-19.

"We think that in an early trial of some 50-100 patients we'd be able to determine how effective this is and what we have to do to maximize effect," Hariri said.

The FDA is obligated to respond to an IND within 30 days, but there's a good chance that this IND will be granted an accelerated review. So, it's possible that these natural killer cells could be tested in the sickest COVID-19 patients very soon.

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