Stem Cell Therapy for COVID-19 Is Gaining Steam in China, But Some Skeptical Scientists Urge Caution
Over the past two months, China's frantic search for an effective COVID-19 treatment has seen doctors trying everything from influenza drugs to traditional herbal remedies and even acupuncture, in a bid to help patients suffering from coronavirus-induced pneumonia.
"This treatment is particularly aimed at older patients who are seriously ill. These kinds of patients are in the danger zone."
Since mid February, one approach that has gained increasing traction is stem cell therapies, treatments that have often been viewed as a potential panacea by desperate patients suffering from degenerative incurable conditions ranging from Parkinson's to ALS. In many of these diseases, reality has yet to match the hype.
In COVID-19, there are hopes it might, though some experts are warning not to count on it. At Beijing's YouAn Hospital, doctors have been treating patients at various stages of the illness with intravenous infusions of so-called mesenchymal stem cells taken from umbilical cord tissue, as part of an ongoing clinical trial since January 21. The outcomes of the initial seven patients – published last month – appeared promising and the trial has since been expanded to 31 patients according to Dr. Kunlin Jin, a researcher at University of North Texas Health Science Center who is collaborating with the doctors in Beijing.
"Sixteen of these patients had mild symptoms, eight are severe, and seven are critically severe," Jin told leapsmag. "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 hospital. This treatment is particularly aimed at older patients who are seriously ill. These kinds of patients are in the danger zone; it's essential that they receive treatment, but right now we have nothing for most of them. No drugs or anything."
The apparent success of the very small Beijing trial has since led to a nationwide initiative to fast-track stem cell therapies for COVID-19. Across China, there are currently 36 clinical trials intending to use mesenchymal stem cells to treat COVID-19 patients that are either in the planning or recruiting phases. The Chinese Medical Association has now issued guidelines to standardize stem cell treatment for COVID-19, while Zhang Xinmin, an official in China's Ministry of Science and Technology, revealed in a press conference last week that a stem cell-based drug has been approved for clinical trials.
The thinking behind why stem cells could be a fast-acting and effective treatment is due to the nature of COVID-19. The thousands of fatalities worldwide are not from the virus directly, but from a dysfunctional immune response to the infection. Patients die because their respiratory systems become overwhelmed by a storm of inflammatory molecules called cytokines, causing lung damage and failure. However, studies in mice have long shown that stem cells have anti-inflammatory properties with the ability to switch off such cytokine storms, reducing such virus-induced lung injuries.
"There has been an enormous amount of hype about these cells, and there is scant scientific evidence that they have any therapeutic effect in any situation. "
"The therapy can inhibit the overactivation of the immune system and promote repair by improving the pulmonary microenvironment and improve lung function," explained Wei Hou, one of the doctors conducting the trial at YouAn Hospital.
However not everyone is convinced, citing the small number of patients treated to date, and potential risks from such therapy. "We just don't know enough to believe that stem cells might be helpful with COVID-19," said Paul Knoepfler, professor of cell biology at UC Davis. "The new stem cell studies are too small and lack controls, making it impossible to come to any solid conclusions. The chance of benefit is low based on the little we know so far and there are going to be risks that are hard to pin down. For instance, what if a stem cell infusion impairs some kind of needed immune response?"
Other scientists are even more skeptical. "I am concerned about all treatments that use mesenchymal stem cells," warned Jeanne Loring, the Director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif. "There has been an enormous amount of hype about these cells, and there is scant scientific evidence that they have any therapeutic effect in any situation. Typically, these treatments are offered to people who have diseases without cures. I'm certain that there will be evidence-based treatments for COVID19, but I understand that they are not yet available, people are desperate, and they will try anything. I hope the sick are not taken advantage of because of their desperation."
Despite such concerns, the steadily rising death toll from COVID-19 means other nations are preparing to proceed with their own clinical trials of mesenchymal stem cells. Jin said he has been contacted by researchers and clinicians around the world seeking information on how to conduct their own trials, with the University of Cambridge's Stem Cell Institute in the U.K. reportedly looking to initiate a trial.
The scale of the global emergency has seen governments repeatedly calling on the corporate world to invest in the search for a cure, and the Australian company Mesoblast – a global leader in cell-based therapies for a range of diseases – are expecting to receive the green light to initiate clinical trials of their own stem cell based product against COVID-19.
"We're talking to at least three major governments," said Silviu Itescu, CEO and Managing Director of Mesoblast. "We are working with groups in Australia, the U.S. and the U.K., and I expect there'll be trials starting imminently in all those jurisdictions."
Itescu is bullish that the therapy has a good chance of proving effective, as it recently successfully completed Phase III trials for severe steroid-refractory acute graft versus host disease (GVHD) – a condition which leads to a very similar disease profile to COVID-19.
"The exact same cytokine profile is occurring in the lungs of COVID-19 infected patients as in GVHD which is destructive to the local lung environment," he said. "If our cells are able to target that in GVHD, they ought to be able to switch off the cytokine response in COVID lung disease as well."
"What we should be focusing on now is not the possible boost to the stem cell field, but rather doing rigorous science to test whether stem cells can help COVID-19 patients."
Jin is hopeful that if the imminent trials yield successful results, the U.S. FDA could fast-track mesenchymal stem cells as an approved emergency therapy for COVID-19. However, Knoepfler cautions that there is a need for far more concrete and widespread proof of the benefit before regulatory bodies start ushering through the green light.
"What we should be focusing on now is not the possible boost to the stem cell field, but rather doing rigorous science to test whether stem cells can help COVID-19 patients," he said. "During a pandemic, it's reasonable to do some testing of unproven interventions like stem cells in small studies, but results from them should be discussed in a sober, conservative manner until there is more evidence."
On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.
The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.
Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.
The Rise and Fall of Public Trust<p>When the polio vaccine was released in 1955, "we were nearing an all-time high point in public trust," says Matt Baum, Harvard Kennedy School professor and lead author of <a href="http://www.kateto.net/covid19/COVID19%20CONSORTIUM%20REPORT%2013%20TRUST%20SEP%202020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>several</u></a> <a href="https://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/COVID19-CONSORTIUM-REPORT-14-MISINFO-SEP-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>reports</u></a> measuring public trust and vaccine confidence. Baum explains that the U.S. was experiencing a post-war boom following the Allied triumph in WWII, a popular Roosevelt presidency, and the rapid innovation that elevated the country to an international superpower.</p><p> The 1950s witnessed the emergence of nuclear technology, a space program, and unprecedented medical breakthroughs, adds Emily Brunson, Texas State University anthropologist and co-chair of the Working Group on Readying Populations for COVID-19 Vaccine. "Antibiotics were a game changer," she states. While before, people got sick with pneumonia for a month, suddenly they had access to pills that accelerated recovery. </p><p>During this period, science seemed to hold all the answers; people embraced the idea that we could "come to know the world with an absolute truth," Brunson explains. Doctors were portrayed as unquestioned gods, so Americans were primed to trust experts who told them the polio vaccine was safe. </p>
The Shift in How We Consume Information<p>In the 1950s, the media created an informational consensus. The fundamental ideas the public consumed about the state of the world were unified. "People argued about the best solutions, but didn't fundamentally disagree on the factual baseline," says Baum. Indeed, the messaging around the polio vaccine was centralized and consistent, led by President Roosevelt's successful <a href="https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ978264.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>March of Dimes crusade</u></a>. People of lower socioeconomic status with limited access to this information were <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1551508/?page=3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>less likely to have confidence</u></a> in the vaccine, but most people consumed <a href="https://www.c-span.org/video/?506891-1/a-special-report-polio" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>media that assured them</u></a> of the vaccine's safety and <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-salk-polio-vaccine-greatest-public-health-experiment-in-history/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized them</u></a> to receive it. </p><p>Today, the information we consume is no longer centralized—in fact, just the opposite. "When you take that away, it's hard for people to know what to trust and what not to trust," Baum explains. We've witnessed an increase in polarization and the technology that makes it easier to give people what they want to hear, reinforcing the human tendencies to vilify the other side and reinforce our preexisting ideas. When information is engineered to further an agenda, each choice and risk calculation made while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/19/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-science.html?referringSource=articleShare" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>is deeply politicized</u></a>. </p><p>This polarization maps onto a rise in socioeconomic inequality and economic uncertainty. These factors, associated with a sense of lost control, prime people to embrace misinformation, explains Baum, especially when the situation is difficult to comprehend. "The beauty of conspiratorial thinking is that it provides answers to all these questions," he says. Today's insidious fragmentation of news media accelerates the circulation of mis- and disinformation, reaching more people faster, regardless of veracity or motivation. In the case of vaccines, skepticism around their origin, safety, and motivation is intensified. </p><p>Alongside the rise in polarization, Pinker says "the emotional tone of the news has gone downward since the 1940s, and journalists consider it a professional responsibility to cover the negative." Relentless focus on everything that goes wrong further erodes public trust and paints a picture of the world getting worse. "Life saved is not a news story," says Pinker, but perhaps it should be, he continues. "If people were more aware of how much better life was generally, they might be more receptive to improvements that will continue to make life better. These improvements don't happen by themselves."</p>
The Future Depends on Vaccine Confidence<p>So far, the U.S. has been unable to mitigate the catastrophic effects of the pandemic through social distancing, testing, and contact tracing. President Trump has <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/bob-woodward-rage-book-trump/2020/09/09/0368fe3c-efd2-11ea-b4bc-3a2098fc73d4_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>downplayed the effects and threat of the virus</u></a>, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/14/cdc-directors-trump-politics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>censored experts and scientists</u></a>, <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/06/america-giving-up-on-pandemic/612796/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>given up on containing the spread</u></a>, and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/world/covid-coronavirus.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized his base to protest masks</u></a>. The Trump Administration failed to devise a national plan, so our national plan has defaulted to hoping for the <a href="https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/26/nation-of-miracles-pence-coronavirus-vaccine-rnc-402949" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>"miracle" of a vaccine</u></a>. And they are "something of a miracle," Pinker says, describing vaccines as "the most benevolent invention in the history of our species." In record-breaking time, three vaccines have arrived. But their impact will be weakened unless we achieve mass vaccination. As Brunson notes, "The technology isn't the fix; it's people taking the technology."</p><p> Significant challenges remain, including facilitating widespread access and supporting on-the-ground efforts to allay concerns and build trust with <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/african-american-resistance-to-the-covid-19-vaccine-reflects-a-broader-problem" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>specific populations with historic reasons for distrust</u></a>, says Brunson. Baum predicts continuing delays as well as deaths from other causes that will be linked to the vaccine. </p><p> Still, there's every reason for hope. The new administration "has its eyes wide open to these challenges. These are the kind of problems that are amenable to policy solutions if we have the will," Baum says. He forecasts widespread vaccination by late summer and a bounce back from the economic damage, a "Good News Story" that will bolster vaccine acceptance in the future. And Pinker reminds us that science, medicine, and public health have greatly extended our lives in the last few decades, a trend that can only continue if we're willing to roll up our sleeves. </p>
Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.
Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.
This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.
Biochemist David Baker, pictured in his lab at the University of Washington.