Since December 2019, COVID-19 has ravaged across the globe, affecting the lives of millions. As of September 14, 2020, there have been over twenty-nine million cases of COVID-19 worldwide with deaths from this virus climbing every day (Okeke 2020). About a month into the novel coronavirus pandemic, a research team in China began an experiment in hopes of finding a treatment for severe COVID-19 cases. The experiment involved a potential treatment for COVID-19 in which patients would receive an IV containing mesenchymal stem cells. Based on the positive results from this experiment, stem cell therapy could be the cure to COVID-19 cases.
COVID-19 is a deadly virus that is believed to have originated from an animal sold at a market in Wuhan, China. The coronavirus is highly transmissible meaning it is easily spread between people, within six feet of one another, through respiratory droplets. In fact, the virus can be spread from person to person even before one of them develops symptoms. It can also remain viable on surfaces and fabrics ranging from four to seventy-two hours. If someone were to touch one of these surfaces and then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth, they could end up being infected with the coronavirus. Since it is easily transmitted, millions of people globally have had a case of COVID-19. With this being said, researchers around the world are experimenting with anything and everything that could potentially pose a threat to the coronavirus.
One experiment, performed by a team of thirty-eight researchers, took place in Beijing YouAn Hospital from January 21, 2020 to February 16, 2020. The team that conducted this experiment had read several reports that outlined the first line of attack COVID-19 takes. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is the infectious agent that causes COVID-19. This infectious agent takes the first step of attacking the body by latching onto structures on the surface of our cells so that the virus is able to invade the body (Demetriou 2020). However, it was a research team in Germany that reported the cellular serine protease TMPRSS2 is essential for the host cell entry and spread (Leng 2020). This discovery inspired the team to use stem cells to treat COVID-19 patients. Since the virus can stimulate a cytokine storm in the lungs, the team thought that avoiding the cytokine storm may be the solution to treating COVID-19. Mesenchymal stem cells are powerful enough to prevent these cytokine storms. The team used these findings to inspire their experiment in which they predicted that mesenchymal stem cells could adequately treat COVID-19 patients. The team’s main goal in performing this experiment was to find a viable treatment for patients suffering from COVID-19 cases.
With ten confirmed COVID-19 patients (three acting as a control group), this experiment was conducted in Beijing YouAn Hospital in China. Each patient’s vitals and symptoms were all reported before the trial so that the researchers had something to compare the results to. During the transplantation, an injection of mesenchymal stem cells through an IV was given to the patient about every forty minutes at a speed of forty drops per minute. After the transplantation, the patients were then observed by medical investigators during a fourteen-day observation period. The outcomes (clinical, laboratory, and radiological) were recorded and certified by doctors.
At the end of this experiment, the researchers concluded that within two to four days of mesenchymal stem cell transplantation, the symptoms of COVID-19 disappeared in all participating patients. This conclusion held true for the patient included in the experiment who was in critical condition. The results prove that stem cells are an effective treatment for COVID-19, no matter how severe the case is.
Overall, the researchers conducted their experiment very well and there were few, if any, flaws in their design. However, one limitation of their study was their sample size. In the experiment, they only included patients who did not show any improvement under the standard treatments for COVID-19. The researchers should have widened their sample size by including patients who had not undergone any treatment methods prior to this one. They should have also added more patients to the experiment. With only ten patients, the researchers are unable to know if this would be an effective treatment for all cases and every type of patient. Another way the researchers could have further enhanced their experiment’s design is by making it a double-blind procedure in which neither the researchers, nor the patients, know who is or is not in the control group. A researcher knowing which patients were in a particular group could create a scenario in which a researcher could skew information to have a more desirable result.
Something else that is important to mention is the morality of the whole study. Stem cell therapy has been considered very controversial due to the complications following stem cell treatments and the process of retrieving the stem cells. Previously, there have been many complications and deaths reported from stem cell therapy. These complications include loss of vision, infections, cardiovascular complications, and cancer. On top of the complications, the process of retrieving stem cells is a very invasive one. The type of stem cells used in this experiment, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), are found in the bone marrow which makes for a difficult retrieval process.
After battling COVID-19 for nine months now, there might actually be a treatment method for this virus. Based on the results of this trial, mesenchymal stem cells as a treatment for COVID-19 could potentially be put into clinical use after undergoing more trials. If this were to be put into official clinical use, it could decrease the number of COVID-related deaths. The positive results from this experiment could also potentially lead to stem cell therapy being used as a treatment method for other diseases or viruses. The results from this experiment show that the world might be seeing the light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel.
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Featured Image Source:
CDC. 2020. Ultrastructure of the COVID-19 virus. Science Photo Library. [accessed 2020 Sept 9]. Digital illustration. https://www.newscientist.com/term/covid-19/