After a small study suggested stem cells from umbilical cords offered coronavirus patients a safe treatment, boosting survival rates and fast-tracking recovery, outside experts are echoing calls for large, multicenter clinical trials to conclude efficacy.
The anti-inflammatory effects from so-called mesenchymal stem cells have sparked interest among some scientists in the search for additional treatments against the novel virus, especially as the country continues to set record-highs in daily deaths, and more contagious variant strains pose a threat to already burdened health systems.
Researchers from the University of Miami published early findings in the Stem Cells Translational Medicine journal last week. In a double-blind randomized trial, half of 24 coronavirus patients suffering from lung damage received two stem cell infusions, with 100 million cells each, several days apart, while the other 12 patients had two infusions of placebo.
There weren't any serious side effects related to infusion, and researchers said the treatment was safe. Notably, the treatment was linked to "significantly improved patient survival," with a 91% survival rate, compared to 42% in the control group one month later. Study authors suggested the infusions could benefit coronavirus patients dealing with a serious lung condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS.
Researchers also said the infusions were linked to a notable drop in inflammatory cytokines, or molecules cueing for harmful inflammation in the body. According to Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos with Johns Hopkins Medicine, ARDS is a type of lung failure resulting from fluid leaking into the air sacs from blood vessels, ultimately causing breathing issues and in some cases, prompting a ventilator.
"The observed findings strongly support further investigation in a larger trial designed to estimate and establish efficacy," study authors wrote.
Dr. Steve Lubinsky, medical director of respiratory therapy at NYU Langone Tisch Hospital, told Fox News that these stem cells have shown a variety of anti-inflammatory effects in animal and in vitro studies.
"These cells can be obtained from a number of tissues including bone marrow, adipose tissue, umbilical cord and amniotic fluid," Lubinsky wrote. As for the Miami study, Lubinsky said the results would have to be repeated in larger trials before reaching firm conclusions in COVID-19 patients.
"The authors report encouraging findings in several secondary endpoints including the clinical outcomes of patients who received the stem cells, but these findings will have to be replicated in large multicenter trials before conclusions can be made about the efficacy of these cells as a therapy for COVID-19," he continued.
Further, Dr. Imran Sharief, a pulmonary disease specialist, noted several small related pilot studies with preliminary evidence of coronavirus patients recovering after infused with the stem cells. Like Lubinsky, the NYU Langone expert, Sharief said the stem cell treatment needs a large randomized, double-blind multicenter trial.
"We need new innovations to fight this challenging illness," he said.