Mesenchymal stem cell therapy in COVID-19 at The Medical City

Published April 15, 2021, 12:59 PM

by MB Lifestyle

Halfway through 2020, doctors at The Medical City (TMC) evaluated and used stem cells from the umbilical cord of newborns for the treatment of severe COVID-19 pneumonia.  

One year into the pandemic, cases are still rapidly rising in the Philippines. The Department of Health (DOH) on March 24, 2021 recorded an additional 6,666 COVID-19 cases, bringing the national caseload to 684,311 and 13,039 deaths.

Infection with COVID-19 has been identified to have two phases: a viral phase when the virus penetrates human cells and produces more viruses, and an inflammatory phase when the body’s immune reaction tries to contain the virus. In some cases, however, the inflammation goes out of control when immune cells release too many cytokines and cause damage to normal cells and tissues – called a “cytokine storm.”  This leads to harmful effects on many organs of the body and can lead to death if left untreated.

Attempts to treat the cytokine storm typically involve drugs like dexamethasone and Tocilizumab, which inhibit specific cytokines such as IL-6.  However, almost all patients with cytokine storm have high levels of many other cytokines other than IL-6 and these cytokine inhibitors and steroids can suppress the whole immune system, and can cause secondary bacterial or fungal infections.  

To overcome these problems, a team of doctors at The Medical City collected and processed specialized cells from the umbilical cord called mesenchymal cells, which are cells that have been shown in previous studies to modulate the immune system. 

The umbilical cord was sourced from the Umbilical Cord Blood (UCB) bank of The Medical City, which was specifically set up to serve as source for the mesenchymal cells. This highlights the importance of having an actual program to engineer cells, and not just have a storage for UCB. 

These doctors found that mesenchymal cells dramatically decreased the levels of all cytokines detected in the blood of patients with severe COVID-19 and was associated with improvement in the condition of the majority of the patients treated. Eleven patients were given mesenchymal stem cells during the initial series and evaluation. There were no significant side-effects associated with infusions of mesenchymal cells in any of the patients.   

The team from the TMC Institute of Personalized Molecular Medicine (IPMM) recently published these findings of the “Use of Umbilical Cord Mesenchymal Stem Cells in the Treatment of Severe COVID-19 Pneumonia” in the Journal of Embryology and Stem Cell Research (JES), a leading international journal covering all aspects of embryology and stem cell research and their disorders. This journal acts as a platform for researchers to share their research work to the world.

“Cellular therapy is using many different types of human cells to replace or repair damaged tissue and cells. With the use of newer technologies and these innovative products, evolving research is showing that these cells can be used as part of treatment of a variety of diseases, including COVID,” said Dr. Michelle De Vera, director of TMC-IPMM. These are the principles behind the establishment of The Medical City’s specialized unit – the IPMM.  

In a letter to Secretary of Health Francisco Duque III, TMC President and CEO Dr. Eugenio Jose F. Ramos wrote “Rest assured that the program proceeded according to set guidelines, and our government, particularly the Department of Health, can take pride in the fact that the Philippines is not behind at all in innovative practice in medicine.” This has clarified that the program is part of a DOH-approved innovative practice where the treatment is tailor-made for each patient and each patient is reviewed by a specialized ethics committee. This is in contrast to a clinical trial where the patients are enrolled and randomized in study groups. The letter also stated, “…it might be taken against us if we keep this knowledge from the public too long while patients are dying, and no single drug seems to work.”

These valiant efforts by the team of doctors at The Medical City prompted a statement from Malacañang through Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque that “The Palace commends The Medical City for its mesenchymal stem cell therapy program for patients with COVID-19 pneumonia. The Duterte Administration fully supports researches and/or practices that would ease the sufferings of patients from COVID-19. We fervently pray that the aforesaid program would continue to show promising results.”