Stem cells therapy A prospective treatment against coronavirus?

Dr Shikha Sharma

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an unforgettable word in 2020. World health organization has declared COVID-19 as pandemic and according to the Worldometer site, it has affected 212 countries and territories and has caused approximately 2.8 lakhs deaths so far. According to the various published scientific evidences COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by new coronavirus that can lead to lung dysfunction. There are 7 coronaviruses that are known to cause disease in humans and among these 3 can cause the severe respiratory infection. These are severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) identified in 2002 in China, Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) identified in 2012 in Saudi Arabia and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus2 (SARS-CoV2) commonly called COVID-19 identified in late 2019 in Wuhan, China. SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and COVID-19 are closely related but COVID-19 spread more quickly than the other two. Over 8000 people from 29 different countries were affected with SARS-CoV epidemic during 2002-2004 while 40.78 lakhs people are affected with COVID-19 so far. In most cases, immune response (body’s defence system) triggered by the COVID-19 infection is sufficient to combat its pathogenesis leads to the recovery of patient. However, in some cases, COVID-19 infection causes highly inflammatory form of lung cells death and injury as the most dangerous phase of its pathogenesis which leads to the overproduction of inflammatory cytokines by body’s own immune cells creating cytokine storm that results in damage to the lung tissues causing pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and sepsis. In Pneumonia and ARDS air sac of lungs fill with fluid or pus. These complications lead to severe condition such as shortness of breath that require treatment with oxygen and ventilator. Therefore controlling inflammatory response is utmost important to prevent coronavirus lethality rate and for the longer life of a patient. Currently no specific treatment is available for COVID-19 infection but several vaccines, drugs and stem cells testing in various countries has generated hope to combat its pathogenesis. Recent breakthrough has demonstrated mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) as cell medicine therapy to reduce COVID-19 infection.
What are MSCs
MSCs are multipotent adult stem cells that are capable of differentiating into various cell types such as fat cells, bone cells, liver cells, pancreatic cells, brain cells, heart cells and skin cells thus can participate in the repair and regeneration of various tissues and organs of the body. Inside the body, upon injury, MSCs migrate to the injured site and participate in the regeneration and repair of the organ either by differentiation or by paracrine secretion or both. In addition MSCs possess immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory properties that contributes to its cell medicinal properties. MSCs can be isolated from various tissues such as bone marrow, peripheral blood, body fat, muscle, placenta, umbilical cord, umbilical cord blood, teeth and hair follicles and can be expanded ex vivo and used for transplantation for treating disease and disorders after genetic stability test.
How MSCs reduce COVID-19
As reported by various research groups that upon intravenous injection or through mist inhalation the significant population of MSCs migrate to the lung and secrete various immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory factors to cure lung dysfunction by normalizing immune response altered by COVID-19 and stimulate lung repair. Moreover MSCs are resistant to COVID-19 infection and can be used for autologous and allogenic transplantation.
Clinical trial with MSCs for COVID-19
There are several clinical trials registered with MSCs for the treatment of COVID-19 from various countries such as China, USA, UK, Germany, UAE, Jordan and Iran and some reports have been published. Approximately 100 patients have been treated with MSCs therapy from moderate to critical conditions within 10-15 days of transplantation. A first case treated with MSCs showed the recovery of 65 year old critical ill patient in Baoshan People’s Hospital, Longling County, China. Initially the patient was treated with antiviral therapy and immunomodulator thymosin alpha1 but hasn’t shown any recovery. Later after 10 days patient was diagnosed with severe pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, multiorgan injury, type2 diabetes, moderate anaemia, electrolyte disturbance, immunosuppression, acute gastrointestinal bleeding and other symptom was shifted to ICU and on ventilator. They showed that after three MSCs injections along with thymosin alpha1 lead to the recovery of patient from COVID-19 infection. FDA has approved 24 patient clinical trial in USA to test safety and efficacy of MSCs from umbilical cord to prevent COVID-19 infection. Recently, in USA three critically ill patients in ICU and on ventilator recovered from COVID-19 infection with MSCs treatment. An Israeli pharmaceutical company Pluristem therapeutics have tested MSCs therapy on 7 critically ill patient and found positive results. More recently, UAE also reported the treatment of 73 COVID-19 infected patients with stem cells. They have developed the technology to isolate the stem cells from patient blood, activate them and reintroduce them by mist inhalation. These reports are indicative that MSCs hold the potential to treat the COVID-19 infection by preventing body’s own defense system from overreacting and normalise its response to fight against COVID-19 infection. Many companies from different countries are seeking approval to begin clinical trial with stem cells against COVID-19 infection.
Why are we lagging behind when we have stem cell companies/labs/facility in our country? We also produce GMP grade stem cells for transplantation. China tested the stem cell therapy on first patient when all other therapies failed and stem cells was one of option left to save the life of the patient. In India also so many deaths are happening due to COVID-19 we can also check if stem cells can reduce the mortality rate. Moreover as per some reports MSCs don’t stay inside the body for more than 1-3 months and they eventually die and don’t result in teratoma formation. Our government along with doctors and scientist can also formulate committee on stem cells and begin such initiative to test MSCs for the treatment of COVID-19 infection. Nevertheless, MSCs has joined the army along with the other possible interventions to prevent the COVID-19 illness.
(The author is (PhD and Postdoc in Stem Cells)