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Human lungs surrounded by coronavirus cells (3d rendering)

It was back in early January when Dr. Michael Matthay and his team at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) began delving into a clinical trial to study how stem cells could help treat acute respiratory distress syndrome. Known as ARDS, the syndrome causes a person’s lungs to fill with fluid, preventing normal oxygen from flowing and causing respiratory failure.

Although there is no cure for ARDS, doctors know it is caused by one of three things, a trauma (including a near-drowning accident), a bacterial infection or by a viral infection – like COVID-19.

In the last nine months, times have drastically changed. In early 2020, COVID-19 was not officially identified in the U.S. Now, more than 6-million people have been diagnosed with the virus, and fatalities are nearing 200,000. 

Dr. Matthay and his team are now aiming to use their work with stem cells to develop an effective treatment for some of those hardest hit by COVID-19. 

In a press release, Dr. Matthay explained that when they started he didn’t plan on it being a trial for the coronavirus. “We started the study in January 2020, and then COVID-19 hit, so we have been enrolling patients over the last eight months,” he said. “Most of the patients we’ve enrolled in the trial have ended up having severe viral pneumonia from COVID.”

The clinical trial, a double-blind study, funded by the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health and the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, is ongoing at UCSF and soon to expand to UC Davis and four other sites.

The stem cells used for the study are mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), recognized for their ability to stop inflammation. These stem cells play a key role in how our bodies make and repair our bones and cartilage. MSCs are already used to stop graft versus host disease, which is when transplant patients reject new organs or bone marrow. The scientific community is hopeful they can also be used in the future to treat autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

Young, healthy adults have donated the MSCs used in the study through a cell laboratory at the University of Minnesota. Researchers are aiming to enroll 120 adult ARDS patients for the study. Some participants will be given MSCs, while others are given a placebo to test the therapy’s effectiveness. 

The San Francisco-based clinical trial is not the only COVID-19 related stem cell research taking place. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a study to use stem cells from umbilical cord tissue to aid in COVID-19 treatment. Researchers are also relying on stem cells as they develop a vaccine to immunize against the virus.


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