As many as 40% of COVID-19 patients in intensive care never recover, but some experts say there may be hope for these severely ill victims in the discarded byproduct of birth.
According to the National Post, umbilical cord cells offer promise for gravely ill COVID-19 patients. Canadian researchers and other scientists believe that the mesenchymal stem cells that are richly abundant in umbilical cords could help restore damaged immune systems. These MSCs are currently being observed in two clinical trials in Canada and in other countries. Early results from an Iranian observational study showed good results.
The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute’s Dr. Duncan Stewart is leading a team of researchers to study the role of MSCs in therapy for COVID-19 patients suffering from Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome or ARDS. ARDS is the major cause of severe illness and death from COVID-19, according to the Institute. The clinical trial is being conducted in conjunction with other investigative researchers in Canada and Europe. Previous studies have concluded that MSCs can tame an overactive immune system and help patients with ARDS as they have in similar types in infections.
Early studies in China suggest that this approach may also help COVID-19 patients, says the Institute. Researchers have already completed a phase one trial to determine the safety of the therapy. Chinese researchers found that patients with ARDS who received MSC treatment had a significantly greater survival rate, says the Post.
"The results are encouraging," says Stewart, according to the Post. "This is a population that has extremely poor outcomes, so anything that can reduce the severity of the disease and improve survival and recovery is really, really important."
Dr. Ines Colmegna, associate professor in the Division of Experimental Medicine at the McGill University Health Centre, plans to test an MSC product from Sweden.
"The idea here is that you’re using a cell that is capable of reversing the damage caused by a huge activation of the immune system," she explains. "In a way, you are bringing some order and direction to the immune system."
Experts say that COVID-19 acts like two diseases. The first is the actual infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that triggers symptoms which usually clear up. The second, more insidious disease, occurs when the immune system shifts into overdrive, causing massive inflammation and attacks the cells of the lungs impairing their ability to bring oxygen into the bloodstream, says the Post. This can lead to life-threatening ARDS.
MSCs can transform themselves into other types of cells and potentially repair damaged or diseased tissue. They can also modulate the immune system, says Stewart. His team is using fresh, viable MSC cells rather than frozen products because they are likely more potent. But Colmegna says that using frozen or “off the shelf” products provide more convenience in emergency cases.
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