new systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical studies using mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) led by a team at the Mayo Clinic, and including researchers from Emory, Duke, Case-Western, and the University of Miami, shows a trend toward improved outcomes and reduced mortality for patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)—a major complication for patients with COVID-19. This study—and several others—also have shown that MSCs are safe for patients.

Based on these findings, the authors call for the rapid commencement of large-scale, confirmatory clinical trials to build on the existing evidence base, which shows a trend toward improved pulmonary function and reduced severe lung inflammation for patients with ARDS, paving the way toward another treatment option for seriously ill patients with COVID-19.

To date, nearly two million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 100,000 Americans have died. In its most severe form, COVID-19 leads to ARDS—a life-threatening lung injury that allows fluid to leak into the lungs and makes it difficult for patients to breathe. More than 40 percent of individuals hospitalized for severe and critical COVID-19 develop ARDS, and 22 percent to 62 percent of those who are diagnosed and become critically ill, die from the disease. There is no effective treatment for ARDS today; MSCs potentially offer a unique therapeutic option to help patients in need.

“The analysis shows a positive trend in outcomes when treating ARDS patients with MSC therapy and represents the potential to save thousands of patients with COVID-19 induced ARDS,” said Wenchun Qu, MD, PhD of the Mayo Clinic and first author of the paper. “The potential benefit—combined with the demonstrated safety of these therapies—supports the need for rapid commencement of more clinical trials.”

“Acute respiratory distress syndrome is a rapidly progressive disease that can occur in critically ill patients,” said Anthony Atala, MD, Editor-in-Chief of STEM CELLS Translational Medicine and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “Having additional potential therapies, such as MSCs, could be highly beneficial to patients with COVID-19.”

To date, the FDA has approved more than a dozen investigational new drug applications for the use of MSCs for COVID-19-related conditions. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has also supported the use of MSCs and other regenerative cell therapies to help patients with other conditions. The bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act provided $30 million in funding to the NIH over three years for clinical research for such therapies. However, these limited investments expire in fiscal year 2020.

The Alliance for Cell Therapy Now and the Regenerative Medicine Foundation support the recommendation of the authors, who urge funding for larger studies that build on the results to date. Collaboration and funding are also needed to collect and analyze the evidence from multiple ongoing and new studies, to better evaluate outcomes and potential benefits of MSC therapy for COVID-19 patients in need. A portion of the more than $10 billion in funding directed by Congress to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and the NIH for COVID-19 should be used to support these goals.

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