Walnut Hill OBGYN and the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas have been selected to participate in an exclusive clinical study seeking to use stem cells found in the placenta to fight COVID-19. As part of the study, Walnut Hill was the first practice chosen by stem cell therapeutic company Celularity to participate in a placenta donation program. This program is currently giving our patients the opportunity to donate their placenta after giving birth so that the stem cells can be harvested and used to create experimental medications.
We spoke to Dr. Hampton Richards, OBGYN physician at Walnut Hill, who is leading our placenta donation program to learn more about the clinical study and how new moms can aid in the fight against coronavirus by donating their placenta.
What Are Stem Cells?
“Stem cells are early cells that can become any cell in the body,” Dr. Richards says. For decades, stem cells have been used to fight cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma, and research has been conducted on using stem cells for other technologies, such as skin grafts, repairing ligament tears, and reforming brain issues for people with traumatic brain injuries. “Stem cells have also been tested to create treatments for things like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism. You can also make whole organs from stem cells, such as a kidney,” he adds.
Stem cells are present in the placenta, the umbilical cord, and the blood that passes through the umbilical cord. Historically, umbilical cord blood was seen as the best source of stem cells, so both private and public bank sites would only collect and store the cord blood in order to process out the stem cells.
“Over the past decade, we’ve realized stem cells can be processed from the umbilical cord. Even more recently, some companies and banks are also keeping the placenta for access to the stem cells,” Dr. Richards says.
Dr. Richards explains how there are some unique differences between the stem cells found in the placenta, umbilical cord, and cord blood, but there are also many commonalities. “The more things you bank, the more it will cost, but also the more stem cells you can get,” he says.
A Less Invasive Method of Stem Cell Donation
Stem cell donations are historically collected from the bone marrow, which requires a painful bone marrow biopsy. Acquiring stem cells from either cord blood, umbilical cord, or the placenta is much less invasive according to Dr. Richards.
“It’s so easy. You’re waiting for the placenta to deliver anyway, so it doesn’t take any extra time,” he says. “It’s medical waste turned into medical gold.”
About the Clinical Trial
Celularity is a company well known around the world for its stem cell technologies and research. The company is currently working on a clinical trial that is using stem cells to create natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in boosting your immunity against viruses as well as your body’s ability to fight tumors.
The trial is studying the possibility of turning stem cells processed from the placenta into these natural killer cells. These cells would then target cancerous cells, with the eventual goal of developing an IV medication that would fight cancer.
Developing COVID-19 Treatments
When the coronavirus outbreak began, Celularity had already conducted the first several phases of its trial and had proven the therapy was safe in initial human studies. To help develop treatments for COVID-19, the company has shifted its focus to using its stem cell therapies to attack COVID-19 in patients who have developed pneumonia. The placentas needed for stem cell harvesting in this study are currently only being provided via Walnut Hill’s placenta donation program.
“There are a lot of reasons to think this would work because natural killer cells are known to be effective against viruses anyway,” Dr. Richards says. “If it does, this will be the third therapeutic agent we’ve discovered that we can use in our armamentarium to fight COVID-19.”
Celularity currently has 86 participants in a double-blind placebo-controlled trial in which half of the patients are receiving the stem cell treatment with the other half receiving placebos. The goal is to study the stem cell treatment’s impact on the course of COVID-19 and its potential use in creating a medication.
How Walnut Hill was Chosen to Participate
Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas had been involved in cord blood banking for several years, and even participated in an umbilical CORD stem cell donation program through a subsidiary of Celularity which Dr. Richards ran. It was one of only a few such programs in the country.
“It was exciting for a period of time to participate in that program until the company had replenished the stockpile of what it needed,” Dr. Richards says. “The program has been shut down for a year or two now at our hospital, but when the new coronavirus study came out, Celularity reached out to Walnut Hill because of their relationship with our practice.”
Celularity approached Walnut Hill and asked if our patients would be interested in donating their placentas they didn’t wish to keep for private banking and would otherwise be discarded. As we mentioned, the donated placentas will go to Celularity’s clinical trial so that the stem cells can be harvested and used to develop a treatment that will hopefully serve as our newest weapon against the coronavirus.
Walnut Hill Patients Battling COVID-19 Through Donation
If Walnut Hill patients don’t wish to keep their placenta after giving birth for either private banking or medicinal reasons, they have the option to fill out a short medical questionnaire to see if they qualify to donate to the clinical trial.
“All of our patients are altruistic at heart,” Dr. Richards says. “Because there’s nothing more required than a 10-minute questionnaire in terms of health history, usually our patients have been excited to participate. I think the idea of using medical waste to save lives and combat a pandemic is just really exciting.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is monitoring Celularity’s clinical trial, so selection to participate in the study is rigorous in terms of making sure patients are safe to donate their placenta. Assuming they qualify, new moms have no other obligation other than filling out the forms. After delivery, Walnut Hill packages the placenta and delivers it to Celularity for inclusion in the study.
“I tell my patients, if this does work out, and we are optimistic that it will, they’d be able to tell their friends they helped save the world against COVID-19,” Dr. Richards says.
Speak with your Walnut Hill physician to learn more about your options for either banking or donating your placenta after giving birth. For general questions, contact us to set up an appointment with your physician.