A unique and groundbreaking randomized controlled trial has shown that umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cell infusions safely reduce risk of death and quicken time to recovery for the severest COVID-19 patients.
Researchers from the University of Miami (Coral Gables, FL, USA) who led the study believe that treating COVID-19 with mesenchymal stem cells makes sense. Mesenchymal cells not only help correct immune and inflammatory responses that go awry, they also have antimicrobial activity and have been shown to promote tissue regeneration. When given intravenously, mesenchymal stem cells migrate naturally to the lungs. That's where therapy is needed in COVID-19 patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome, a dangerous complication associated with severe inflammation and fluid buildup in the lungs.
The study involved 24 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 who had developed severe acute respiratory distress syndrome. Each received two infusions given days apart of either mesenchymal stem cells or placebo. Researchers found the treatment was safe, with no infusion-related serious adverse events. Patient survival at one month was 91% in the stem cell treated group versus 42% in the control group. Among patients younger than 85 years old, 100% of those treated with mesenchymal stem cells survived at one month. The researchers also found that the time to recovery was faster among those in the treatment arm. More than half of patients treated with mesenchymal stem cell infusions recovered and went home from the hospital within two weeks after the last treatment. More than 80% of the treatment group recovered by day 30, versus less than 37% in the control group.
The next step is to study use of the stem cells in COVID-19 patients who have not yet become severely ill but are at risk of having to be intubated, to determine if the infusions prevent disease progression. The findings have implications for studies in other diseases, too, according to the researchers. Hyper-immune and hyper-inflammatory responses in autoimmune diseases might share a common thread with why some COVID-19 patients transition to severe forms of the disease and others don't.
"Our results confirm the powerful anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory effect of UC-MSC. These cells have clearly inhibited the 'cytokine storm', a hallmark of severe COVID-19," said Giacomo Lanzoni, Ph.D., lead author of the paper and assistant research professor at the Diabetes Research Institute. "The results are critically important not only for COVID-19 but also for other diseases characterized by aberrant and hyperinflammatory immune responses, such as autoimmune Type 1 Diabetes."