Stem Cell Therapies Show Promise in the Fight Against COVID-19

As an emergency physician on the frontlines of the COVID-19 epidemic who also works at the Fraum Center for Restorative Health, I am seeing my two passions—stem cell therapies and emergency medicine— intersect in this pandemic. Stem cells are not usually part of emergency medicine, but they are rapidly coming to the forefront. 


In addition to helping patients overcome chronic joint pain and other ailments that have plagued them for years, these therapies are showing promise in fighting COVID-19. Stem cells have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect, and this is critical in the treatment of the severe internal dysregulation that fighting off the virus triggers in some people. In patients with severe COVID-19 disease, inflammation is doing the damage as their internal signaling systems go awry and damage their organs.

As we recognize how important interrupting inflammation may be in treating COVID-19 disease, we are looking to ways to cause the interruption. Stem cell therapies’ anti-inflammatory effect has been studied extensively in rheumatoid arthritis (another disease caused by out-of-control inflammation). A recent study from China about stem cells published last month in the journal “Aging and Disease” showed hope for patients with COVID-19.

All seven patients with severe COVID-19 who received IV stem cell therapy showed complete/drastic improvement within 48 hours in this trial. Another case study from China demonstrated that COVID-19 causes both out of control inflammation and immune system suppression similar to patterns seen in advanced HIV infection (low CD4 lymphocytes as well as some other lymphocyte lines). Physicians used stem cells obtained from umbilical cords to treat one patient with severe COVID-19 who was rapidly declining in an ICU despite receiving traditional anti-viral medications. The patient rapidly improved and survived. Her lab work post-treatment reflected what we have seen in other studies: her inflammatory markers improved and her lymphocytes (immune system cells) returned to normal. (Bing, et al)

By mid-April, there were more than 30 stem cell trials for COVID-19 disease underway worldwide. In the U.S. in early April, two separate human trials testing the use of stem cells to treat COVID-19 were announced. These are the first Phase 2 clinical trial in the U.S. for any stem cell therapy. A number of other American institutions and labs have applied to the FDA for emergent licenses to utilize stem cells in research about COVID-19. In the midst of all of this sorrow, I am hopeful for the possibilities these stem cell studies offer in our fight against a disease that is ravaging our country.

At the Fraum Center for Restorative Health on Hilton Head Island, stem cells are also changing lives. There I’ve been working with these therapies for two years and have seen first-hand the hope stem cells have brought. Patients who couldn’t lift their arms past 30 degrees come in to the office waving. Patients who couldn’t climb stairs without excruciating knee pain are getting down on the floor to play with their grandchildren and taking motorcycle tours. Patients who weren’t able to sleep through the night due to back pain are finally getting a good night’s rest. Their progress lifts my spirits and is a respite from my work in two local hospitals, where I’m on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis.

There I work in the emergency departments and ICUs to determine the level of care needed by each COVID-19 patient, and I intubate patients with COVID-19 pneumonia who can no longer breath without the assistance of a ventilator. In both places I am humbled and honored by the opportunity to serve patients who need our help.

Heather Hinshelwood is a board certified Emergency Physician and fellow of the American College of Emergency Physicians. In addition to working with Dr. Brad Fraum at Fraum Center for Restorative Health twice in a month, she treats patients in the emergency room at Beaufort Memorial Hospital and at Colleton Medical Center in Walterboro. She has 15 years of experience in emergency medicine.

1. Bing Liang, Junhui Chen, Tao Li, Haiying Wu, Wenjie Yang, Yanjiao Li, J., Li, Congtao Yu, Fangang Nie, Zhaoxia Ma, Mingxi Yang, Panrong Nie, Y. G., & Chuanyun Qian, M. H. (2020). “Clinical remission of a critically ill COVID-19 patient treated by human umbilical cord.” chinaXiv, 10.12074/202002.00084.