An extraordinary Israeli treatment for patients with severe Covid-19 that is halving hospital stays may reduce the danger of so-called “long Covid”.
Speaking to the Jewish News this week, on the day the government announced plans for booster jabs to be offered to all over 18s to help halt a potential new wave driven by new variant Omicron, Dr Tomer Bronshtein, head of research at Haifa’s Bonus BioGroup, said he hoped that the “wonder cure” could be available in the UK “in a couple of months”.
Called Mesencure, the treatment, has completed the second phase of clinical trials in Israel and is shortly to go through a third clinical trial. The company is seeking emergency approval for Mesencure, which is a form of cell therapy.
It is not a replacement for a vaccine, but a treatment for those who have already succumbed to a serious Covid condition.
Dr Bronshtein described the work of Bonus BioGroup which the company’s chief executive, Dr Shai Meretzki, declared could sometimes be mistaken for “science fiction”. But the biotech advances are very much real, as the two explained.
The company — founded by Dr Meretzki — began research in 2013 with an ambitious aim: “We wanted to create a real blockbuster, not just to take care of hundreds of patients, but to take care of tens of millions of patients”.
Before the pandemic, work had focused on tissue engineering, and developing a new technique to treat people with a loss of bone tissue. “It could be from trauma, or disease. We developed the ability to engineer live human bone in the lab, from the patient’s own cells”. Patients who might otherwise have faced amputation were treated by Bonus and the success rate “was very high”.
Dr Bronshtein said: “One of our most famous patients is a guy called Danny. He had a Segway accident and he lost about eight cm of bone in his leg. He underwent several procedures and they didn’t manage to fix it. He was a candidate for amputation. After he was treated [with Bonus bone tissue], three months later he was jumping on his leg, and 12 months later he did a triathlon, an Iron Man competition”.
It takes just two weeks to grow the bone tissue — taken from fat cells in the patient — and the technique has other applications, such as in hip or knee replacements.
It was the cell therapy work which led the company’s scientists to work on Mesencure. “The cells which we used, from fatty adipose tissue, to make bone tissue, are cells which also have a unique ability to control inflammation. So, instead of taking cells from the patient himself to build bone tissue, we are taking cells from a healthy donor. We ‘educate’ these cells in the lab, and put them into a cell bank”.
A single donor’s cells can provide treatment for tens of thousands of patients with severe Covid. Very often the donor is having an elective operation to reduce fat: the excised tissue would normally be thrown away, but if the donor agrees, it can be used by Bonus BioGroup.
Dr Bronshtein said that an injection of Mesencure would act as both “pharmacy and pharmacist. A live cell has capabilities that far extend the capability of a single drug. And as a pharmacist, the cell can sense the environment. The cells reach the lungs of a Covid-19 patient and they reduce the inflammation”.
In clinical trials so far, Mesencure — which has been given to patients who are both vaccinated and unvaccinated — has reduced the prospective mortality rate by around 70 per cent. It does not treat the virus itself, but the manifestations of it.
Working 16-18 hour days in order to develop Mesencure, the scientists of Bonus BioGroup have met “very stressful and challenging situations” said Dr Bronshtein, but stressed that although they were working very quickly, “there are no shortcuts”.
The Israelis have discovered that Mesencure has cut the hospitalisation period almost by half, freeing up vital beds in wards and intensive care units. They also think that patients who have “long Covid” symptoms even after discharge from hospital will benefit from this treatment. “The faster you heal,” Dr Meretzki said, “the less likely you are to develop long Covid”.
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