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London, Ont., researchers first in world to treat COVID-19 with specialized dialysis

Doctors intubate a patient with COVID-19 at Humber River Hospital on April 24, 2020.
Doctors intubate a patient with COVID-19 at Humber River Hospital on April 24, 2020. Jeff Semple / Global News

Researchers in London, Ont., say they’ve been able to treat COVID-19 with a specialized dialysis procedure, marking a global first in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

The team is made up of scientists from the Lawson Health Research Institute who used a modified dialysis device to conduct the treatment.

The device works by reprogramming a patient’s white blood cells to fight hyperinflammation, a symptom that’s been associated with the body’s response to COVID-19.

READ MORE: How many Canadians have the new coronavirus? Total number of confirmed cases by region

According to a release from Lawson, the new treatment is based off evidence that suggests the virus can cause a cytokine storm in severely ill patients, which is when the patient’s immune system goes dangerously overboard in responding to it.

The cytokine storm is what leads to the hyperinflammatory state, said Lawson.

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Amid concerns of global drug shortages and limited remedies for hyperinflammation, lead researcher Dr. Chris McIntyre said he sought to discover more treatment options for COVID-19.

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“This led to the idea of treating a patient’s blood outside of the body,” said McIntyre. “We could reprogram white blood cells associated with inflammation to alter the immune response.”

READ MORE: World needs a plan ensure a COVID-19 vaccine can reach everyone: experts

The new treatment centres on a modified standard dialzyer called an extracorporeal leukocyte modifying device.

The device gently removes a patient’s blood in a much slower circuit than standard dialysis. It then uses specific levels of biochemical components to target and transform white blood cells.

The goal of the treatment is that once the reprogrammed white blood cells are released back into circulation, they will fight hyperinflammation, rather than promote it, in organs affected by the immune system’s heightened response to the novel coronavirus.

READ MORE: This is what can happen to your lungs when you have coronavirus

The treatment will be tested in a clinical trial consisting of up to 40 patients who are critically ill with COVID-19. The patients are from London Health Sciences Centre’s Victoria Hospital and University Hospital.

Participants in the trial will be randomized to either receive standard supportive care for COVID-19 or standard supportive care combined with the new treatment. Researchers will then compare outcomes to evaluate the new treatment’s effectiveness.

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The trial will use insights gained from another London-based study that aimed to better understand cytokine storms.

“The ultimate goal is to improve patient survival and lessen their dependency on oxygen and ventilation,” said McIntyre.

—With files from Global News’ Jacquelyn Lebel.

Inside the ICU: What staff at a Toronto hospital have learned about COVID-19
Inside the ICU: What staff at a Toronto hospital have learned about COVID-19

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.