A small study using umbilical cord blood stem cells to treat COVID-19 suggests that these stem cells could significantly improve survival rates and accelerate recovery time for critically ill COVID-19 patients. The study recently published in Stem Cells Translational Medicine included 24 patients hospitalised in the US suffering the most severe form of COVID-19.

What are the key takeaways from this study?

  • The primary objective of the study was to evaluate the safety of umbilical cord blood stem cells as treatment for COVID-19, whilst also looking at potential efficacy.
  • This was a double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 1/2a clinical trial, where each patient received two infusions of either mesenchymal stem cells from the umbilical cord, or a placebo.
  • This meant that both the doctors and the patients involved in the study didn’t know what was infused.
  • A total of 24 patients were involved in the study – 12 patients were in the control group who received the placebo, and 12 patients were in the treatment group who received mesenchymal stem cells.
  • Two infusions of 100 million stem cells were administered within a three-day period to the patients in the treatment group.
  • No adverse reactions to the mesenchymal stem cell treatment were reported and the treatment appeared to be safe overall.
  • A 91% survival rate was reported in critically ill patients who were given the umbilical cord blood stem cell infusion.
  • This is in comparison to a 42% survival rate in the control group who received the placebo.
  • 100% of the patients under 85 years old were still alive one month after receiving the mesenchymal stem cell treatment.
  • Over half the patients who were treated with umbilical cord blood stem cells recovered and were discharged from hospital within two weeks after receiving the last treatment.

Why use umbilical cord blood stem cells?

Dr Camillo Ricordi director of the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) and Cell Transplant Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine said:

“The umbilical cord contains progenitor stem cells, or mesenchymal stem cells, that can be expanded and provide therapeutic doses for over 10,000 patients from a single umbilical cord. It’s a unique resource of cells that are under investigation for their possible use in cell therapy applications, anytime you have to modulate immune response or inflammatory response. We’ve been studying them with our collaborators in China for more than 10 years in Type 1 Diabetes, and there are currently over 260 clinical studies listed in clinicaltrials.gov for treatment of other autoimmune diseases.”

Mesenchymal stem cells were identified as a potential treatment of COVID-19 when the pandemic began in early 2020. Researchers in Israel reported significant improvements in treating COVID-19 patients with mesenchymal stem cells, resulting in a 100% survival rate and faster recovering time than those without stem cell treatment. Additionally, a critically ill 65-year-old COVID-19 patient made an astounding recovery just four days after receiving an injection of umbilical cord blood stem cells.

These powerful stem cells not only help to correct immune and inflammatory responses that contribute to what is referred to as the ‘cytokine storm’ in a COVID-19 infection, but they also possess antimicrobial properties and have been shown to promote tissue regeneration.

What’s next for the study?

Whilst initial results from this study are encouraging, further research is needed to determine the effectiveness on a larger number of COVID-19 patients. The next steps of this particular study will investigate the impact of umbilical cord blood stem cells on patients who have not yet become severely ill. The objective will be to determine whether the use of mesenchymal stem cells prevents further progression of the virus.

References

Giacomo Lanzoni et al., (2021) “Umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells for COVID‐19 acute respiratory distress syndrome: A double‐blind, phase 1/2a, randomized controlled trial”, Stem Cells Translational Medicine, available at: https://stemcellsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/sctm.20-0472

University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, (2021) “Groundbreaking Treatment for Severe COVID-19 Using Stem Cells – “It’s Like Smart Bomb Technology in the Lung””, SciTechDaily, available at:
https://scitechdaily.com/groundbreaking-treatment-for-severe-covid-19-using-stem-cells-its-like-smart-bomb-technology-in-the-lung/

Bethany Dawson, (2020) “Umbilical cord stem cells implanted into Covid patients improve survival chances, study suggests”, The Independent, available at:
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/covid-stem-cell-umbilical-cord-b1782478.html

Paul Knoepfler, (2021) “Small umbilical cord stem cell COVID-19 trial: sign of efficacy?”, The Niche, available at:
https://ipscell.com/2021/01/small-umbilical-cord-stem-cell-covid-19-trial-efficacy/

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