‘We Cannot Stick to the Rules’: claims of stem cells saving COVID-19 patients

I’ve been watching as the number of registered stem cell-related clinical trials for the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) disease COVID-19 continues to spiral upward, mostly in China.

stem cells for COVID-19

Part of Fig. 2 of preprint claiming stem cells improved outcomes for COVID-19 disease. X-rays of lungs first got worse (more grainy looking infiltrate in air spaces) as the disease progressed and then got better (clearer) after stem cell infusions.

During the last two weeks, I’ve been trying to carve out a bit of time to look at these actual trials in more depth, but I admittedly haven’t gotten very far as I’m super busy with other stuff.

What I have read so far in the COVID-19/stem cell trial descriptions hasn’t convinced me that stem cells are likely to be useful for COVD-19. The rationales just seem shaky to me.

Could I be flat-out wrong about that?

I doubt it, but over the last few days, Chinese researchers have posted two preprints claiming that mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) had success in helping coronavirus patients, and this hit the media there.

In fact, there is already a claim of saved lives.

Journalist Stephen Chen wrote about these supposed “successes” in a news article in the South China Morning Post. The headline seems way too exuberant in my view: “Coronavirus: critically ill Chinese patient saved by stem cell therapy, study says.”

Here are the two big key bullet points underneath the news article’s title, which also reflect upbeat views:

    ’65-year-old woman in Kunming hospital intensive care unit showed no adverse effects to her first shot and after two was up and walking again, researchers say

    Results ‘could be very important and inspire similar clinical practices in treating critically ill Covid-19 patients’

I dug up what I think are the two preprints that are the focus of Chen’s story:

  • Transplantation of ACE2- mesenchymal stem cells improves the outcome of patients with COVID-19 pneumonia (key claim, “MSCs could cure or significantly improve the functional outcomes of seven patients with COVID-19 pneumonia in 14 days without observed adverse effect.”) See image of 1st worsening and then improving chest x-rays above from Figure 2.
  • Clinical remission of a critically ill COVID-19 patient treated by human umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells (key claim, “Our results suggested that the adoptive transfer therapy of hUCMSCs might be an ideal choice to be used or combined with other immune modulating agents to treat the critically ill COVID-19 patients.”)

I still can’t help but feel skeptical about these reports after skimming them.

I hope I’m wrong, but this all (especially the news article) gave me some kind of dark deja vu from the old days of stem cell clinics and even some others claiming that they could get paralyzed people up and walking again fairly quickly.

Of course, the reality is that these are just small clinical case reports and must be interpreted cautiously so far as spontaneous recoveries cannot be rule out, but that’s kind of how it is doing quick clinical studies during an outbreak.

Isn’t it? What do you think?

From towards the end of Chen’s article, we have this from one of the investigators:

“According to Dr Li Honghui, who is involved in similar trials at Loudi Central Hospital in central China’s Hunan province, stem cell injections can deliver significant results within three days.

“We cannot stick to the rules, we must be bold and innovative,” he was quoted as saying in a report by Hunan Daily last week.”

We’ll see where this all leads on the stem cell-novel coronavirus front. I hope we don’t see unproven clinics tapping into this somehow such as for claims about lung health more generally or something.

Paul Knoepfler


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