Stem cells are undifferentiated “blueprint” cells that are being studied in the repair of damaged tissue from a wide range of diseases. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are a type of stem cells that can be found in umbilical cord tissue. They have also been isolated in minute quantities from adult bone marrow. These stem cells are self-renewing – a small quantity of these cells obtained from cord blood can be used to generate more MSCs in a lab and used to make vast quantities of therapeutic agent. MSCs are also multipotent- they are capable of differentiating into many different cell types, and therefore have vast potential for use in medical advancement (Wei, et al., 2013).
In this current state of the globally spreading coronavirus, existing clinical trials are being reviewed for their potential application to treat the cascade of complications that present in Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). ARDS is a severe often fatal condition that develops in COVID-19, requiring assisted ventilation. ARDS is believed to be preceded by a ‘cytokine storm’, an excessive immune response that increases inflammation. MSCs have been studied for their immunomodulary capacity, which is their ability to modify how the immune system responds, and have been shown to be effective in other immune-mediated inflammatory diseases, such as graft versus-host disease (GVHD) and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Researchers are now attempting to evaluate if MSCs can be used effectively to attenuate the cytokine storm.
A pilot study of seven patients was conducted in Beijing YouAn Hospital, Capital Medical University, China, in January 2020. These patients, all of whom were diagnosed with COVID-19 with moderate to critical symptoms, and were not responding to traditional treatments, were administered a solution containing MSCs via IV. They were then monitored for 14 days after administration, and all 7 showed significant improvement in symptoms; 3 were discharged from the hospital at the time of publication.
Although a small sample size, the treatment of severe COVID-19 and ARDS using mesenchymal stem cells shows great promise and further clinical trial are warranted.