While the world awaits a much-anticipated COVID-19 vaccine to be approved and distributed globally, several treatment options with repurposed drugs and alternative therapies are being sought after against the coronavirus disease. Among these resources, stem cell therapy has become a popular candidate with reports of successful treatment in small cohorts across the world. But do these isolated success reports ensure its position as an effective approach to COVID-19 treatment or is it just a fluke to be waved off with time?
First and foremost, let us discuss briefly about stem cells and why they are being considered as a therapeutic approach. A stem cell has the ability to differentiate into specialized cell types and lineages to sustain the growth and rejuvenation of body tissues. Stem cell therapy involves utilizing these cells to repair and restore damaged tissues of the body naturally. Mesenchymal stem cells, generally used for stem cell therapy, have been shown to possess immunomodulatory functions that can prevent cytokine storm (in case of respiratory distress syndrome, which is a severity symptom of COVID-19). Therefore, stem cells are believed to develop good immune functions in the body to combat SARS-CoV2 infection.
Recent Stem Cell Therapy Reports against COVID-19
The first stem cell treatment given to a Chinese COVID-19 patient was successful and following that, a pilot study in China on 7 COVID-19 patients found that intravenous mesenchymal stem cell infusions improved patient outcomes and recovery rate was good. Later, reports of treatment from the Abu Dhabi Stem Cell Center (ADSCC) in the UAE showed good recovery in 73 patients as per the UAE health ministry press statement. The ministry pushed the study towards the initial clinical trial phase as this therapy was hypothesized to regenerate healthy lung cells and modulate immune functions to reduce the severity of COVID-19 symptoms.
In the USA, a New York hospital performed a stem cell treatment on 12 severe COVID-19 patients out of whom 10 patients were taken out from the ventilators due to positive signs of recovery. Moreover, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued approval in April 2020 for using mesenchymal stem cells under expanded access compassionate use in case of severe COVID-19 cases. Although the approval is not accepted with welcoming arms by doctors and researchers, adequate clinical trials will determine the efficiency. Currently, there are over 20 active stem cell trials for COVID-19, mostly based on mesenchymal stem cell treatment.
Potential Therapy or Fluke?
Coronavirus has the capability of affecting the immune system and causing a cytokine overreaction in the body to damage organs and tissues and leading to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), the major cause of COVID-19 mortality. Most doctors believe that stem cell therapy is safe and can be a potential treatment against COVID-19 mostly due to the immune system modulation. Coronavirus has been already reported to have mutations and therefore will keep causing problems unless a preventive measure in terms of strengthening one’s immune system can be done. This is where stem cell therapy can also work efficiently as a wall against recurrence or future infection of coronavirus rather than treat it.
However, not everybody is all optimistic towards using stem cell therapy as many doctors and researchers complain of the inadequate study numbers and success stories. Even Dr. Karen Osman, who led the New York hospital experiment treatment mentioned earlier, said that the doctor does not claim stem cell therapy to be the sole reason for the recovery of the patients and only a randomized clinical trial can authenticate that efficiency proof. While some doctors are skeptical regarding the idea of suppressing the immune system by stem cells to avoid cytokine storm as such a step could be counter-productive with more complications for future infections.
Therefore, though stem cells have shown efficacy in the treatment of coronavirus, only further research and conclusive clinical trial data can propagate the idea of safely using stem cell therapy in case of unanimously treating COVID-19 or preventing any scene of recurrence.