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Umbilical stem cells may help patients survive severe COVID-19

11 January 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1078

Stem cells from umbilical cords may help treat severe COVID-19 according to a small study from the University of Miami, Florida. 

Umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells (UC-MSCs) are thought to be anti-inflammatory and can dampen a hyperactive immune response. Researchers theorised that this effect could help prevent the so-called 'cytokine storm', which is a frequent complication of severe COVID-19. Cytokines are small signalling molecules that help coordinate the body's immune response, but in some illnesses, excessive levels of cytokines can cause hyper-inflammation resulting in organ failure.

'The umbilical cord contains progenitor stem cells, or mesenchymal stem cells, that can be expanded and provide therapeutic doses for over 10,000 patients from a single umbilical cord,' said Dr Camillo Ricordi, director of the Cell Transplant Centre at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. 'It's a unique resource of cells that are under investigation for their possible use in cell therapy applications, anytime you have to modulate immune response or inflammatory response.'

The study – published in Stem Cells Translational Medicine – consisted of a double-blind clinical trial of 24 patients with severe COVID-19. Half received two infusions with UC-MSCs, while the other half received control infusions that did not contain stem cells. 

Among the patients who received the UC-MSCs ten survived at least one month after the treatment was reported, one died of unrelated causes, and one, who was over 85, died from COVID-19. This compared to five survivors the control group, and seven COVID-related deaths. No serious adverse reactions were reported. 

In addition, stem cell treatment appeared to accelerate recovery time. More than half of patients treated with UC-MSCs were discharged within two weeks, with nine recovering by day 30, compared to four in the control group.

The scientists are now planning to expand the study to 120 patients, and also to test if the treatment could help with worsening but not yet severe COVID-19 to potentially halt disease progression.

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