- Researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine proved that a groundbreaking coronavirus treatment idea actually works.
- Stem cell transfusions can save lives and hasten COVID-19 recovery in patients with severe illness who develop life-threatening ARDS.
- The stem cells migrate to the lungs and can correct the immune and inflammatory response, reducing the so-called cytokine storms. “It’s like smart bomb technology in the lung to restore normal immune response and reverse life-threatening complications,” Dr. Camillo Ricordi said in a statement.
As awful as 2020 has been, with COVID-19 being largely responsible for the entire tone of last year, there’s one key thing that doesn’t get enough praise. That’s the science that allowed health officials and doctors to craft protocols for preventing COVID-19 transmission and save more patients who end up developing life-threatening complications. A large number of discoveries allowed doctors to change the way they treat patients.
The introduction of blood thinners in COVID-19 therapy and meds that can temper the inflammatory response has allowed more people to survive the battle with the terrible illness. New drugs like monoclonal antibodies can prevent severe cases, and vaccines have shown great effectiveness in clinical trials at preventing COVID-19 complications. But SARS-CoV-2 is so infectious that the number of deaths remains high. The higher the caseload, the more deaths can be expected, even though the actual fatality rate is quite low. That’s why the US has experienced so many deaths in the past few months, and more people will not survive COVID-19 in the coming months.
Vaccines are the kind of miracle cure that can prevent deaths by teaching the immune system to be prepared to deal with the virus from the moment it sets foot in the body. But vaccines can’t be used on people who are already infected with the pathogen. That’s where the world will need better therapies. A team of doctors has just found the groundbreaking treatment that might save even more lives than what’s possible right now. The researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine proved a theory that was based on anecdotal evidence. Stem cell therapy can hasten COVID-19 recovery and prevent deaths.
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Some doctors have tried stem cell transfusion in COVID-19 therapy in various countries, with US physicians showing great success. But those were not studies that would allow the country to create new treatment protocols. New drugs, like vaccines, need to go through randomized, double-blind studies that prove beyond doubt that they’re effective and safe.
That’s what the UM team did with umbilical-cord derived mesenchymal stem cell infusions. The doctors studied 24 COVID-19 patients hospitalized at the UHealth Tower or UM/Jackson Memorial Hospital. The patients developed severe acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which appears in other illnesses and can be fatal. The patients received two infusions a few days apart, either with a placebo or the stem cells.
“It was a double-blind study. Doctors and patients didn’t know what was infused,” Dr. Camillo Ricordi said in a statement. “Two infusions of 100 million stem cells were delivered within three days, for a total of 200 million cells in each subject in the treatment group.”
Ricordi, the senior author of the study published in Stem Cells Translational Medicine, is the director of the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) and Cell Transplant Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
The researchers found that patient survival was 91% in the stem cell group compared with 42% in the placebo group. All the patients younger than 85 who received the stem cells survived for one month.
The patients on stem cells recovered faster than the ones in the control group. More than half of patients treated with stem cells went home within two weeks after the last treatment. More than 80% of the stem group recovered by day 30, compared to less than 37% in the placebo cohort.
“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,” Ricordi said. “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.”
The doctor said the university has been working with China for more than 10 years on these therapies, looking at stem cells for treating type 1 diabetes. Therapies based on stem cells might be used in other illnesses that cause an exaggerated immune response, not just COVID-19.
“Our results confirm the powerful anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory effect of UC-MSC (umbilical-cord derived mesenchymal stem cells). These cells have clearly inhibited the ‘cytokine storm,’ a hallmark of severe COVID-19,” Dr. Giacomo Lanzoni, lead author of the paper, said in a statement.
The stem cells have antimicrobial activity and lead to tissue regeneration, in addition to correcting the immune and inflammatory response.
The therapy “requires only an intravenous (IV) infusion, like a blood transfusion,” according to Ricordi. “It’s like smart bomb technology in the lung to restore normal immune response and reverse life-threatening complications.” The stem cells have been found to deploy naturally to the lungs, which is the most compromised area in COVID-19 patients who develop ARDS.
The university plans to study stem cell therapy in COVID-19 patients who have not developed complications but are at risk of being intubated. If successful, the therapy could prevent COVID-19 progression to a severe state where complications arise.
While Ricordi and his team proved this stem cell therapy is safe and effective for COVID-19 patients, it’s unclear if and when it can be used at a larger scale. The US is still dealing with a record number of hospitalizations, and patients developing complications will need weeks to recover. Other countries are also experiencing massive COVID-19 surges.