Potential of Stem Cell Therapy to Increase Survivability
The novel coronavirus has wreaked havoc around the world. Entire nations have shuttered their economies. Millions have fallen ill. The death toll continues to rise and with it, fear. Fear of how those most susceptible to the virus will survive given its communicability. While the situation remains serious, there is good news. Mitigating your chances of catching the virus requires simple steps that most people can do on their own without any help. Additionally, there are experimental treatments that may help increase survivability for the most at-risk within the population.
Who Is Most at Risk?
Unsure what your risk level is from COVID-19? Worried that you might fall into one of the high-risk groups? The CDC has set out specific parameters that help you determine where you fall on the risk spectrum. However, the basics are as follows:
- You are an increased risk if you are 65 or older.
- You are at risk if you live in a long-term care facility or other senior care facility.
- You may be more at risk if you are pregnant.
- You are at an increased risk if you have asthma or other lung conditions/breathing problems.
- You are at risk if you have a heart condition.
- You are at an increased risk if your immune system is compromised, including cancer patients.
- You are at an increased risk if you are obese or if you have liver disease, diabetes, or kidney failure.
- You are at an increased risk if you are using corticosteroids.
What Does COVID-19 Do?
For most people, the symptoms of COVID-19 are relatively mild and usually consist of a low-grade fever, a dry cough, and possibly a sore throat. However, the symptoms can vary drastically from patient to patient and can increase in severity with patients in any of the high-risk groups noted above.
Most patients will survive an infection of the novel coronavirus with nothing more needed than bed rest and isolation to help prevent the virus from spreading further, augmented with over-the-counter medications and hydration. However, those in at-risk groups have a significantly higher chance of experiencing not just more severe symptoms, but of death from COVID-19.
The reason for this is the way the virus operates. The novel coronavirus enters the body through the nose or mouth, in much the same way as other coronaviruses. It can be ingested or breathed in, and once in the body, it begins to penetrate the soft tissue lining the back of the throat, the back of the nose, and even behind the eyes. Once established here, the virus uses the body’s own cells to replicate itself and spreads.
The spread is downward, through the throat, to the lungs. Once in the lungs, the downward spread continues, until all the airways and air sacs have been infected with the virus. Now, several things begin to occur:
- The body’s immune system acts to stop the invader. One way it does this is through inflammation of infected tissues. Because the inflammation is within the lungs, it creates a cough, and can also cause:
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing
- The virus continues to replicate, and cells die. These become debris within the lungs. Other debris also accumulates from dead and dying immune cells.
- Debris builds within the air sacs and airways of the lungs, further increasing the difficulty in breathing and reducing oxygenation.
- As the infection spreads, the lungs begin to fill with mucous, which further limits breathing and oxygenation.
For many at-risk patients, the immediate results of severe infection include hospitalization and some type of oxygen therapy. In less severe cases, a nasal cannula or a facemask may be all that the patient needs to ensure adequate oxygenation. However, patients with severe symptoms may need to be intubated, as a ventilator that forces oxygen into the lungs could be the key to surviving long enough for the virus to begin dying off within the body.
The Role of Stem Cell Therapy
While all forms of stem cell therapy should be considered experimental, there are compelling reasons to consider its use. For instance, seven patients in a Beijing hospital were treated with stem cell therapy, and all showed marked improvements from COVID-19. The study was subsequently expanded to over 30 patients, all of whom showed at least some degree of improvement and had better chances of survival.
While the full details of the study have not been published (beyond the original seven infected patients), details are beginning to emerge. Dr. Kunlin Jin, who is collaborating with Beijing, spoke with Leapsmag magazine about the situation.
“Sixteen of these patients had mild symptoms,”
he told the magazine.
“Eight are severe, and seven are critically severe. But all patients have shown improvements in lung function following the treatment, based on CT scans – most of them in the first three days and seven have now been completely discharged from the hospital. This treatment is particularly aimed at older patients who are seriously ill.”
From that point, 36 new stem cell trials have begun in China with the goal of discovering a treatment that will dramatically increase survivability for patients of all ages. Why is stem cell therapy effective, though? It does not destroy the virus, so what mechanism increases survivability?
It is because stem cells can augment the body’s immune system, which becomes dysfunctional during the infection. Patients die not because of the virus, but because of their body’s efforts to defeat it through inflammation, which in turn causes diseases like pneumonia and even ARDS, which have low rates of survival. Stem cells have shown a marked ability to reduce inflammation and turn off cytokine storms, which can limit and even prevent life-threatening lung injuries.
Ultimately, stem cell therapy may be the key to increasing disease survivability, particularly for the elderly and other high-risk groups. However, it is important to remember that the FDA has not yet approved any stem cell treatment, and any such therapies should be considered experimental only. It is also important to work with a physician who is familiar with using allogeneic stem cells, rather than autologous stem cells.