MSCs utilized in coronavirus treatment show promising results

Researchers have published the results of patients treated with mesenchymal stem cells following coronavirus infection.

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In research making global headlines, clinicians from YouAn Hospital (Beijing, China) have collaborated with Kulin Jin, a researcher at the University of North Texas Health Science Center (TX, USA), to treat seven patients with mesenchymal stem cells after they were severely affected by COVID-19.  The work was recently described in Aging and Disease, and, if substantiated by further trials, the treatment could offer a method of reducing the damage caused by the global pandemic.

The concept behind the therapy sees mesenchymal stem cells utilizing their ability to modulate the immune system to dampen the response to the infection. Whilst this may sound counterintuitive, many believe it is the severe immune response and virus-induced cytokine storm that results in acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

Seven patients were intravenously injected with mesenchymal stem cells, directly into the bloodstream, whilst three patients received a placebo substance. Within 14 days, the patients treated with the mesenchymal stem cells were successfully discharged. Unfortunately, of those treated with the placebo, one patient died, one progressed into a more severe state and the third developed ARDS.

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ARDS is considered the leading cause of death following coronavirus infection and can also be the consequence of a number of other infections, such as pneumonia. The condition results in an ability to properly breath and currently has limited treatment options beyond intubation.

Mesenchymal stem cells are capable of secreting a plethora of cytokines, sometimes earning them the nickname ‘medicine secreting cells’. It is well recognized that these cytokines can decrease inflammation and promote repair, potentially allowing the lung tissue to avoid the damage normally caused by the disease. In this study, following treatment, levels of peripheral lymphocytes were increased, C-reactive protein decreased, and overactivated cytokine-secreting immune cells disappeared in 3–6 days, indicating an immunomodulatory effect.

"This is thought to be one of the main reasons why the COVID-19 pneumonia actually kills an individual – this storm of activity trying to fight the virus," explained David Siderovski, Professor and Chair Pharmacology & Neuroscience (University of North Texas Health Science Center).

While impressive, before being utilized in the USA, the treatment would have to undergo rigorous US FDA (MD, USA)-approved clinical trials. Follow up studies are currently underway in China with a larger cohort, hoping to replicate the highly promising early results.

"I am proud to be part of the team I work with to fight COVID-19," commented Jin. "Our study showed that intravenous infusion of clinical-grade human mesenchymal stem cells is a safe and efficient approach for treating patients with COVID-19 pneumonia, including in elderly patients displaying severe pneumonia."

Some may question the arrangement and the avoidance of FDA supervision by testing the treatment in China; however, it is important to note the severe condition of the patients could have very likely been fatal and the high prevalence of the virus in the Chinese population at the time. Clinical trials utilizing MSCs against pneumonia-related ARDS are also underway in the USA, under FDA supervision.

Sources: Leng Z, Zhu R, Hou W et al. Transplantation of ACE2- mesenchymal stem cells improves the outcome of patients with COVID-19 pneumonia. Aging Dis. 11(2), 216-228 (2020); www.unthsc.edu/newsroom/story/hsc-professor-among-international-researchers-using-stem-cells-to-combat-covid-19-pneumonia/

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Alexander Marshall

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I am the editor of RegMedNet, here to spread the latest information to help our community of experts. With experience in oncology research and regenerative medicine, I hope to share fascinating stories about the work that world class scientists are doing. Please get in touch if you have any queries or comments!

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