August 14, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Update on stem cells for COVID-19, Surgisphere scandal

The term Regenerative Medicine covers so much biomedical science these days including everything from just about any kind of cell therapy (not just stem cells) to CRISPR gene editing, and with the the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems this umbrella use of the term now includes potential treatment of viral illnesses.

It can be hard to keep track of it all. I’m regularly doing a kind of “regenerative medicine” digest these days to help. Today’s post is just such an aggregate with a focus on COVID-19.

Stem cells for COVID-19 Maryland
A video snippet on stem cells for COVID-19. Screenshot from Maryland research video featuring Dr. Sunjay Kaushal.

Regenerative medicine and stem cells for COVID-19

Can cells be used to treat COVID-19? Maybe, but I’m not convinced it’s a fruitful path.

Why the uncertainty?

So far there are surprisingly little data to support the idea of cellular medicine for COVID-19 patients. Yet dozens of groups ranging from academic labs to biotechs have pivoted to put some focus in this area. Sometimes their major focus.

In part the shift is understandable because people want to help with the pandemic and also more practically speaking because there is so much money flowing to COVID-19 research. It’s just not clear how much if at all cell medicines can be expected to help with COVID-19 based both on common sense and what data that is out there.

You can see some of my past coverage of this arena including an interview with Sean Morrison here on our COVID hub page.

Here are just some of the latest cell medicine developments related to COVID19 as of June 2020. It’s getting to be quite a crowd.

Maryland

Stem Cell Therapy Designed To Treat Severely Ill Coronavirus Patients Being Tested In Maryland

As to this Maryland trial site involved with Mesoblast by Dr. Sunjay Kaushal, there’s a mention of it in the below YouTube video starting around the 3:30 mark.

UCSF

UCSF studying stem cells as possible coronavirus treatment

“Dr. Michael Matthay is leading a UCSF clinical trial to see if stem cell therapy can treat COVID-19 symptoms”

UC more generally and UCSD

From the Daily Californian on the UC System allocating funds for COVID work, a mention of UCSD working with  in vitro lung tissue made from stem cells to study the viral illness:

“UC San Diego researcher Pradipta Ghosh said she will use the UCOP money her center received to infect lab-grown human lungs with the COVID-19 virus to discover the potential causes of the virus’s fatality.

“Growing stem cells out of tissues is not a trivial matter,” Ghosh said. “It costs a huge amount of money and we are happy UCOP gave us some money to do this research — $50,000 is a drop in the bucket and we have also reached out” to the National Institutes of Health.”

Outside the US

There is a ton going on in China too with cell therapy trials for COVID as well.

Regarding work in Japan, we have this headline, “Drugmaker eyes stem cell clinical test for coronavirus treatment.” Rohto Pharmaceutical will test fat MSCs for COVID-19. I’m just not seeing the logic in this kind of trial.

Biotechs already doing trials on immune cells and stem cells for COVID-19

As for the many cellular medicine biotechs such as Athersys, Mesoblast, and placenta-focused Celularity, as well as many other biotechs trying cells out for COVID-19, the jury is still out on safety and efficacy.

I had concerns about Celularity in a unique way given it used Rudy Giuliani to help promote its efforts. In my view you can’t go on Giuliani’s show without politicizing what you are doing as a biotech and that may have pressured the FDA to clear their IND.

Lancet Retraction Surgisphere COVID-19
Lancet Retraction related to Surgisphere and COVID-19.

The Surgisphere scandal

And the Surgisphere COVID-19 train wreck has a stem cell connection. Of course, it does.

From Science, we have “Who’s to blame? These three scientists are at the heart of the Surgisphere COVID-19 scandal.”

One of the senior authors on the retracted papers based on Surgisphere data is cardiac surgeon Amit Patel, who reportedly (Science) also has promoted the idea of stem cells for a variety of conditions including heart disease, aging, and sexual dysfunction, and now for COVID-19:

“Patel once apparently headed cardiac surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. A university press release announcing his arrival in 2016 is no longer posted on the university website, however, and the school has not confirmed his job duties there. More recently, he has been a volunteer adjunct professor at the University of Utah. But, as STAT first reported yesterday, Patel tweeted on Friday that he had severed his relationship with the university, which a school spokesperson confirmed. In recent years Patel has developed and commercialized experimental stem cell therapies purported to cure heart problems, reverse aging, or treat sexual dysfunction. He is also part of a network of physicians that just launched a trial to use stem cells from umbilical cord blood to treat COVID-19 patients.”

See more on Patel and Surgisphere from the scoop by STAT News here.  You can see The Lancet retraction here.

According to Science, Patel also has connections to Camillo Ricordi at University of Miami, who I’ve been concerned might be overselling the idea of stem cells for COVID-19:

“Patel left Miami under unclear circumstances, but has retained ties with Camillo Ricordi, an influential stem cell researcher at the University of Miami School of Medicine who is also the founder of a nonprofit called the Cure Alliance. The alliance previously focused on testing whether stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood could treat diabetes or Alzheimer’s, but has now pivoted to “fighting COVID-19,” according to its website. Ricordi is the principal investigator on a multisite trial to see whether the stem cells can treat lung inflammation in severe COVID-19 patients and Patel is listed in various references to the trial as a “key contributor” or “co–principal investigator.” Ricordi says Patel is an upaid collaborater on the trial and praises Patel’s work in regenerative medicine.”

Looking ahead on cells for COVID

Overall, I believe the stem cell and broader regenerative medicine field needs to be more cautious about how we discuss the idea of cells for COVID-19. If we are lucky, perhaps in the end after all these trials one treatment might prove safe and effective in helping patients infected with the coronavirus, but even that is a long shot in my view. We definitely should not be using words and phrases already like “cure” and “game changer”.

I hope I’m wrong to be so skeptical.

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