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."
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.