Initial data from early clinical trials show that mesenchymal stem cells could potentially stop the virus, calm the immune response and repair tissue damage caused by COVID-19.

As the pandemic continues, the race is truly on to find an effective treatment for COVID-19. With more than 500 clinical trials currently underway across the world, researchers are channelling all of their efforts and expertise in the hope of finding a cure.

Perhaps one of the most promising therapies that has emerged in recent months is that of mesenchymal stem cells. Early results have shown that mesenchymal stem cells may have the ability to eliminate the virus, calm the hyper-reaction of the immune system and ultimately repair the damaged caused by COVID-19.

Researchers have said that “this type of regenerative medicine could be as revolutionary as Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine”.

What have the studies shown?

Earlier this year, a pilot study in New York used mesenchymal stem cells to treat a dozen severely ill COVID-19 patients on ventilators. The patients were administered with two infusions of MSCs which controlled their hyperactive immune systems. 83% of these patients survived. Following these results, the FDA gave the green light to a larger clinical trial to take place on 300 patients.

Another study reported in the Lancet also treated 13 critically ill coronavirus patients with MSCs. The results of the study reflected the New York study, with an 85% survival rate. X-rays of the patients’ chests also showed that the MSC treatment repaired damaged lung tissue. In some patients, this was evident within 48 hours of receiving the stem cell treatment.

Additionally, researchers from Shanghai University treated 7 COVID-19 patients with mesenchymal stem cells and discovered that symptoms of all patients were significantly alleviated within just two days of the treatment, showing no adverse effects. 3 of these patients were discharged from hospital 10 days after the stem cell treatment. Since the trial began, the clinical trial has continued to treat over 30 COVID-19 patients, all of whom have shown significant improvements in their condition following mesenchymal stem cell therapy.

What happens when someone contracts COVID-19?

Early symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe, or sometimes no symptoms at all. In some patients that contract COVID-19, the virus enters the lungs and causes inflammation.

This inflammation is caused by small proteins called cytokines which signals to the immune cells that there is a disease that needs to be eliminated. However, in some patients, these cytokines which are meant to be orchestrating a controlled response to the virus, lose control.

This is referred to a “cytokine storm”. During this storm, the immune cells begin to spread beyond infected body parts and start to attack healthy lung tissue. The cytokine storm has been shown to be so vicious that is punches holes into the delicate lung membranes, which can lead to other severe health complications.

Heart attacks, blood clotting, multiple organ failure, stroke and other health complications not usually associated with respiratory infections cause around 40% of COVID-19 related deaths as a result of further damage to lung tissue which allows the virus to enter the bloodstream and body cavities. 

Why are mesenchymal stem cells crucial for treating COVID-19?

Research has suggested that the coronavirus is both a respiratory and vascular infection – meaning that the virus has the ability to affect the lungs, enter blood vessels and cause further damage.

Finding a solution that not only fights off the infection, but also controls the immune response and repair damaged tissue, has become vital in the fight against COVID-19.

Over the last 30 years, mesenchymal stem cells have been shown to protect almost every vessel and cell within the body. Due to their powerful healing properties and regenerative potential, MSCs are already used to other life-threatening conditions when traditional treatments and drugs fail – such as leukaemia and sickle cell anaemia.

Now, research has shown that mesenchymal stem cells may be the answer to providing this valuable combination that may combat the deadly coronavirus.

Where can mesenchymal stem cells be found?

MSCs can be found in various sources within the body. In humans, they are primarily found in bone marrow, fat, umbilical cord tissue or the amniotic fluid which surrounds the fetus during pregnancy.

Perhaps the richest source of this stem cell can be found in umbilical cord blood. Cord blood contains billions of these powerful stem cells, which is already used to treat over 80 conditions and diseases.

Several studies have used umbilical cord stem cells as well as placental cells to treat COVID-19, with promising initial results.

Despite their powerful regenerative potential, many people are still unaware of the potential of using mesenchymal stem cells for treating COVID-19.

More research has been called upon to use MSCs to treat COVID-19, however the initial results from preliminary studies and the continued efforts in clinical trials provide a ray of hope to ending the global pandemic.

References

Kevin Kimberlin, (2020) “The Treatment That Could Crush COVID”, The Wall Street Journal, available at:
https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-treatment-that-could-crush-covid-11597360709

Amber Dance, (2020), “What is a cytokine storm?”, Knowable, available at:
https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/health-disease/2020/what-cytokine-storm

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