SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Sanford Health is launching a first-of-its-kind study that uses umbilical stem cells to treat people sick with COVID-19.

The Sioux Falls-based health system has enrolled five patients at Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls in the trial, which uses umbilical cord lining stem cells to treat patients with moderate to severe COVID-19 both before and every they've been placed on a ventilator, it announced Tuesday, Sept. 8. It may expand the study to patients in Fargo.

“We are optimistic about the potential improvement with this treatment,” Dr. W. Chad Spanos, principal investigator of the clinical trial at Sanford Health, said in a news release. “We look forward to enrolling more patients onto this trial and bringing promising new treatment options to our patients’ bedside in the future.”

The randomized, placebo-controlled and blinded phase 1/2a study will look at whether infusing patients with the stem cells could be a safe and effective treatment for COVID-19. The trial also aims to identify the population that will benefit most optimally by enrolling patients with moderate to severe COVID-19.

Sanford Health is the largest rural nonprofit health care system in the nation with clinics across the Upper Midwest and major medical centers in Sioux Falls, Fargo and Bemidji, Minn.

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“We’re committed to bringing the best treatments and discoveries to our patients first,” David A. Pearce, president of innovation and research at Sanford Health, said in a news release. “We are thrilled to be the first health system in the country to open this trial and offer access to a novel treatment option to our patients with severe cases of COVID-19.”

The study will use cells provided by RESTEM, a biotechnology firm which uses a proprietary process to rapidly replicate millions of doses from umbilical cord tissue.

“It’s a pleasure to work with Sanford Health and their team of professionals,” said Dr. Rafael Gonzalez, senior vice president of research & development for RESTEM. “We have spent many years researching the properties of (umbilical cord lining stem cells) in order to assure we are delivering the best quality cells that may provide a robust response. We look forward to the results of the study.”