Stem Cell Therapy for Post-COVID Syndrome Latest Potential Safe & Long-Term Effective Treatment for Post-COVID Syndrome
What Causes Post-COVID Syndrome?
Post-COVID syndrome, commonly known as long COVID or long-haul COVID, refers to lingering symptoms that last beyond three months after a SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Each symptom lasts for at least 2 months, regardless of the severity of the initial infection. The symptoms tend to negatively affect parts of everyday life and seem to have no other explanation for their presence. Symptoms may linger from the initial infection or they may be completely new. They can also vary in severity over time and be followed by periods of decline after experiencing improvement 1–4.
Common symptoms of post-COVID syndrome include and are not limited to 4,5 6–8:
- Difficulty thinking
- Shortness of breath
- Hair loss
- Sleep problems
- Heart problems and increased risk of cardiovascular diseases
- Depression and anxiety
- Joint and muscle pain
- Brain fog
- Vertigo or dizziness
- Ringing in the ears
- Digestive conditions and gut symptoms
- Reduced libido
Researchers are still trying to understand the exact mechanisms that cause post-COVID syndrome. Many experts believe that persistent symptoms may be due to one, if not a mixture, of the following mechanisms:
- An abnormal immune reaction to the initial infection or to viruses or virus parts hiding in several organs after the initial infection (occult viral persistence)
- Long-lasting inflammation or infection-triggered autoimmunity 9
- Unusual activation of blood clotting pathways
- Organ damage, especially to the nervous system 2
- Damaged mitochondria, the subpart of your cells that produce energy 10
- Damages to the autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious bodily actions that keep you alive, such as breathing, digestion, and blood pressure.
Your doctor may diagnose post-COVID syndrome based on history, signs and symptoms, and physical exam.
The Scientific Rationale Behind Stem Cell Therapy for Post-COVID Syndrome
As of February 2023, there is no approved drug for post-COVID syndrome. Many drugs are undergoing clinical trials to judge their safety and efficacy for long COVID.
Although several vaccines are available, COVID-19 has become part of our everyday life. Many scientists believe that more variants of SARS-CoV-2 will continue to emerge, as it mutates due to various selective pressures.
It’s unclear whether the vaccines prevent or mitigate post-COVID syndrome. Perhaps, due to the lack of effective and FDA-approved therapies for long COVID, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that “holistic support for the patient throughout their long COVID illness course can be beneficial.”
While the CDC and FDA do not specifically mention stem cell therapy, it remains a promising treatment as it does for other chronic degenerative conditions that involve the nervous system.
Stem cell therapy refers to the administration of stem cells into the body to treat or manage a condition.
Stem cells are immature (also called “undifferentiated”) cells that can turn into a number of other cell types. They can also expand in numbers into more of the same stem cells.
These stem cells can replace damage that the body fails to repair naturally in many conditions, either due to wear and tear or diseases. Because these cells can develop into many different cell types, they have various medical applications. For example, an adult stem cell can develop into a fat cell, neuron, cartilage, and many others.
Bone marrow transplant, a type of stem cell therapy, has been an approved and routine treatment for specific cancers of the blood and immune system since 1968.
Aside from replacing and healing damaged tissues, when stem cells are administered to a specific area being treated, they assist in:
- Reducing or balancing excess inflammation
- Becoming the specific type of cells needed to repair the area, and increasing the production of more cells of the same type
- Restoring or replacing lost immune function due to a chronic infection
- Donating mitochondria to cells with damaged mitochondria. The mitochondria help produce energy for your cells, especially neurons. Treatments that improve mitochondria tend to help chronic diseases that affect the nervous system.
Post-COVID syndrome most likely arises from an abnormal immune reaction to SARS-CoV-2, long-lasting inflammation, and organ damage. A cell regenerative approach has provided significant improvements to patients with severe COVID-19 and may provide benefits to individuals that suffer from long COVID.
Adult stem cells, especially mesenchymal stem cells, have powerful immune regulating effects, along with the ability to repair damaged cells. These cells can effectively reduce the inflammatory response caused by SARS-CoV-2, reduce lung injury, improve lung function, and protect and repair cells damaged by COVID-19.
Historically, stem cell therapy has helped with restoring the functions of many organ systems affected by COVID-19, such as people with heart, gut, and lung issues.
There are two types of stem cells: embryonic and adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells come from embryos, whereas adult stem cells come from adult tissues.
At Nashville Regenerative, we use only adult stem cells harvested from the patient’s body to treat the patient. This minimizes the risk of tissue rejection and eliminates any need for immunosuppressive drugs, unlike in other types of transplants.
Adult stem cells exist throughout your body. However, different kinds of stem cells exist in different places. Mesenchymal stem cells are a type of adult stem cells commonly used in stem cell therapy because they are easy to harvest and can develop into many important cell types.
These adult stem cells have been isolated from the following locations in the human body:
- Bone marrow
- Adipose (fat) tissue
- Periosteum (outside layer of bone)
- Umbilical cord
Bone marrow and fat tissues are common sites for stem cell harvesting. After harvesting, the stem cells can be isolated from your other tissues and used immediately, or they can be cultured in 6 - 8 weeks. When stem cells are cultured, they are grown in a nutrient medium, where they expand in numbers. This increased stem cell dose can then be injected, increasing the likelihood of beneficial results.
Post-COVID-19 syndrome arises from chronic inflammation, low cellular energy production, leftover viruses, and organ damage. These are disease processes for which stem cell therapy may be particularly beneficial.
We harvest tissues that contain stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow and fat tissues. Then, we isolate the stem cells from other cells in the clinic.
The stem cell suspension is then injected into the bloodstream and into the nervous system through the spine. Here, the stem cells can then enter the brain and seed in the area of neuron loss.
For patients who need higher doses of stem cells, we culture their stem cells in the lab to expand the number of these stem cells. Our US-based stem cell lab facility is FDA-registered, ISO-7 certified and certified in Good Manufacturing Practices. We will then schedule a procedure to receive the stem cell treatment once the cultures are ready.
Steps in Stem Cell Therapy for Post-COVID Syndrome
- Harvest stem cells from your bone marrow and/or fat
- Inject some stem cells right away
- Culture some stem cells in our lab to increase cell numbers
- Get the stem cells back and inject the concentrated suspension (~6 - 8 weeks later)
As of February 2023, there are no published results from studies that started stem cell therapy on patients with post-COVID syndrome. There are many ongoing clinical trials, however. In August of 2022, a South Korean Biotech company began clinical trials on stem cells to treat long COVID. Beginning in April of 2023, a publicly traded stem cell technology company will begin a clinical trial for using stem cells, taken from a patient’s very own fat tissue, to treat their long COVID.
Many studies have looked at stem cell therapy for critically ill patients with COVID-19. They found that stem cell therapy improved symptoms, promoted rehabilitation, and increased survival rates, without significant side effects.
We do not treat active COVID-19 infections at Nashville Regenerative Orthopedics. However, we review studies in these patient groups, which demonstrate how stem cell therapy can help repair damages and support recovery from this illness. Given the limited clinical evidence, stem cells for COVID-19 and post-COVID syndrome remain an experimental treatment and individual responses may vary.
A case report examined 7 patients with COVID-19 pneumonia, experiencing symptoms of a high fever, weakness, shortness of breath, and low blood oxygen levels. All of their symptoms disappeared two to four days after receiving stem cells. Their lung function also improved considerably.
Another case report of a critically ill 54-year-old male with a cough, fever, and chest tightness for 4 days. His inflammatory markers, lung function and symptoms significantly improved just 2 days after receiving stem cells. His antiviral immune cells also recovered and increased in number, and he was discharged 7 days after receiving stem cell therapy.
In a study of 12 critically ill COVID-19 patients that received standard treatment, researchers and randomly assigned patients knew who was having stem cell therapy added to their treatment protocol (open-label, individually randomized, standard treatment-controlled trial). All patients received standard treatments, including supplemental oxygen, antiviral medications, antibiotics (if there was clear evidence of bacterial infection), and corticosteroid therapy. None of the patients that received stem cells progressed from severe to critical condition; they also did not need invasive ventilation. In the group that did not receive stem cells (control group), 4 patients progressed to critical illness and received invasive ventilation. Unfortunately, 3 of these individuals passed away. No patients in the stem cell group passed away in this study. Symptoms of shortness of breath and fatigue improved faster than the control week, if not completely went away within one week, after patients received stem cells.
Stem cell therapy can decrease inflammatory signals (cytokines) released by the immune system. These signals, including interleukin-6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP), often revealCOVID-19 severity and risk of death. Stem cells can also control and balance the immune system by releasing signals that reduce inflammation, such as interleukin-10 (IL-10). Evidence of the ability of stem cells to help control inflammation can be found in the following studies:
- A pilot study of 7 patients with COVID-19 pneumonia
- 2 case reports of critically ill elderly patients
- A case report of 13 patients with severe COVID-19 pneumonia
- 6 critically ill COVID-19 patients (age range of 19–75 years)
- A prospective, un-blinded, nonrandomized primary safety trial of 24 COVID-19 patients with signs and symptoms of overall clinical deterioration (18–85 years)
Stem cells can also help restore, or replace missing or damaged immune cells.
In a case report, a 66-year-old female had increased lymphocytes the day after she received stem cells. Lymphocytes help coordinate and control the immune response. This patient’s labs showed that the stem cells helped regulate her immune response, inhibit cytokine storm, and repair lung tissue 33. Stem cells also have very few receptors for SARS-CoV-2 to bind to, which suggests that they have a low risk of infection from this virus.
Adult cells only produce interferon, an antiviral signal, when a virus invades. Interferon brings white blood cells and turns on genes to fight the virus infections. Stem cells can act even without interferon and can continuously activate many antiviral genes. This may be helpful for patients experiencing long COVID symptoms due to viral particles hiding in several organs after the acute infection (occult viral persistence).
Stem cells can also help repair damaged tissues in patients with COVID-19. The stem cells produce cellular signals that prevent cell death and promote new blood vessel formation. The new blood vessel formations help repair of kidneys and intestines 16. Stem cells can also donate mitochondria (cell part that produces energy) to injured lung cells and improve lung function.
Currently, stem cell therapy is available not only for severe COVID-19 patients but also for those who have recovered from severe COVID-19 complications, especially to help repair damaged lungs.
Patients that were placed on mechanical ventilators, due to severe COVID-19, have been given stem cell therapy. Most of these patients experienced a significant decrease in inflammatory cytokines and went on to be discharged from the intensive care unit. No one experienced adverse events after receiving stem cells.
Lung scarring (pulmonary fibrosis) is a serious complication of COVID-19. After seeing that stem cells reduced scarring and inflammation in the lungs of mice with lung injuries, researchers offered stem cell therapy to 27 COVID-19 patients. These patients had varying degrees of pulmonary fibrosis and respiratory symptoms. They all showed improvements after the stem cell treatments and their lung scars were significantly reduced.
In another group of patients with severe COVID-19, the researchers followed up on their progress one year after receiving stem cell therapy. These patients experienced fewer symptoms and had lungs that appeared normal on CT scans. There were no CT scans that showed normal lungs in patients from the placebo group (the group that did not receive stem cell therapy).
The cost depends on the specific treatment you will be undergoing and how many treatment sessions you need. Book a consultation with us today to get your personalized stem cell therapy treatment plan.
Typically, you will need 1 - 2 treatments, depending on the plan of care established between you and your doctor. All treatment appointments are in person, but the initial consultation and follow-up can be done by phone.
Some people do come back for additional treatments over the course of months or years. This largely depends on the stage of your disease, how well you respond to the treatment, and what your treatment goals are.
Your Patient Journey with Stem Cell Therapy for Post-COVID Syndrome
Step 1: Application and initial consultation
Our questionnaire and initial consultation help us determine whether you’re a good candidate for stem cell therapy, along with the best treatment plans for you. Our patient advocate will walk you through the process, pricing, and payment plans.
Step 2: Physical exam
You’ll come in for a physical exam in preparation for the treatment and also to assess your current symptoms and health status.
Step 3: Stem cell collection
Your procedure will begin where we harvest cells from your bone marrow or fat tissues. We will then isolate the stem cells from these tissues in the clinic before administering your first treatment.
Step 4: Stem cell culture
If applicable, we will send your stem cells to the lab to expand them in numbers.
Step 5: Future treatments
Your future stem cell treatments will be done using your cultured stem cells.
Step 6: Follow-up appointments
Our team will keep in contact with you to monitor your treatment progress and support you through your recovery.
Advantages of Stem Cell Therapy vs Standard Treatments and Other Alternative Treatments for Post-COVID Syndrome
Current Standard-of-Care Treatments for Post-COVID Syndrome and Their Shortfalls
As of January 2023, there is no cure or validated effective treatment for long COVID.
The CDC emphasizes that doctors should:
- Provide holistic, patient-centered approaches to improve patient quality of life and function
- Create partnerships with specialists for physical and mental health care (such as physical therapists and psychologists)
- Educate patients about lifestyle factors, such as nutrition, sleep, and stress reduction
- Use symptom management approaches, which may include FDA-approved medications, vitamin or electrolyte supplements for headaches or anxiety, breathing exercises to improve symptoms of difficulty breathing, etc.
This means that any potential therapies that patients and physicians decide to pursue, no matter how much benefit a patient experiences, are considered experimental. Since there is no known cure, it’s common to focus on managing symptoms and hope that patients’ symptoms slowly improve with time. Many of the current medications for managing symptoms of long COVID come with significant side effects. Doctors may then decide to prescribe another medication to help deal with these side effects. The path of symptom suppression, through multiple medications, may negatively affect the quality of life of patients just as badly as the disease the medications were initially prescribed to help with.
Below are some of the standard-of-care treatments that may be given to patients suffering from long COVID.
Occupational therapy teaches patients how to adapt and perform tasks common to everyday life. Patients and occupational therapists come up with ways to change your movements so you can get your work done, stay active, and enjoy recreational activities. While many people find tremendous benefits from occupational therapy, it does not treat the cause of their symptoms.
Stem cell therapy may treat the mechanisms responsible for causing long COVID and provide additional benefits to individuals undergoing occupational therapy. Stem cells may reduce the need for occupational therapy entirely if symptoms disappear as they did for many patients with severe COVID-19.
Corticosteroids are used to treat conditions that involve inflammation due to their very powerful anti-inflammatory effects. They decrease the body's immune response, which is why they are used when the immune system is overreacting. Corticosteroids have improved symptoms and organ function in patients with severe COVID-19. As with any therapy, there are side effects that should be considered by the patient and doctor. Some of the concerning side effects of corticosteroids include:
- High blood pressure
- Muscle weakness
- Changes in mood, including depression
- Increased risk of infection
- Increased appetite and high blood sugar, which may result in weight gain and other health risks
- Bone loss (osteoporosis)
NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, are used to relieve pain, lower fever, and reduce inflammation. Long COVID patients experiencing persistent, severe, discomfort (such as chest tightness) may be prescribed ibuprofen. Below are a few alarming risks that patients should be aware of when using NSAIDs:
- Changes in vision
- Shortness of breath
- Liver or kidney damage
- Stomach or intestinal bleeding
- NSAIDs can increase the risk of a fatal heart attack or stroke
Cough suppressants are used to relieve coughing through various ways. The medication Tessalon Perles (benzonatate) numbs the throat and lungs, making you less likely to cough. Whereas, Robitussin (dextromethorphan) changes signals in the brain that trigger the cough reflex. Some serious side effects of these medications are:
- Burning eye pain
- Severe drowsiness or dizziness
- Confusion or hallucinations
Post-COVID patients with sleep disruptions may seek out various sleep aids, from sedative herbs to melatonin and prescription drugs such as Ambien. These can be habit-forming and may increase drowsiness and accident risk in the morning.
Benzodiazepines, also called “benzos”, act on specific receptors in the brain and have a calming effect by making the brain less sensitive to stimulation. Doctors may prescribe them for patients with sleep problems. Below are a few worrying side effects patients should be informed about:
- Vision problems
- Potentially addictive medication
- Forgetfulness (amnesia)
- Hallucinations or risk-taking behavior
Many post-COVID patients develop mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, possibly because the virus causes brain inflammation. Also, being on ventilators or receiving intensive care may also lead to PTSD.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are used to treat patients with symptoms consistent with anxiety, depression, or PTSD. These medications increase serotonin or other neurotransmitters in the brain. These are chemicals that carry messages between nerve cells. Serotonin is thought to have a good influence on mood, emotion and sleep. A few concerning side effects of these medications are:
- Sexual dysfunction
- Increased risk of bleeding
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Nausea and vomiting
- Suicidal thoughts and behavior
These medications can start to take effect in 1 - 2 weeks but may take up to 8 weeks to deliver their full benefits. Many patients also have to try multiple medications for weeks at a time to find the right mix.
Because adult stem cells may reduce brain inflammation, stem cell therapy may also help with mood disorders from post-COVID. Some stem cell therapy clinical trials are ongoing in treatment-resistant depression patients, though not post-COVID.
Why Nashville Integrative Therapy?
We are passionate about delivering safe and effective treatments to our patients, especially when standard-of-care treatments fall short. Over the years, we’ve seen the immense life-changing benefits of stem cell therapy first-hand and we’re passionate about making it available to you.
About Dr. Ethan Kellum, MD
Dr. Ethan Kellum is a pioneer in interventional and regenerative orthopedics. As a sports medicine specialist who is fellowship-trained in orthopedic surgery, Dr. Kellum is an expert in musculoskeletal injuries and joint conditions. Although he still performs shoulder and knee surgeries, his main focus has become regenerative medicine, especially stem cell therapy, to keep patients out of the operating room.
Dr. Kellum is a native of Henderson, Tennessee and attended Jackson Christian School and Freed-Hardeman University. He earned a medical degree from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine in Memphis. After a residency in orthopedic surgery at the Medical College of Georgia, he then completed a surgical fellowship in sports medicine, shoulder, and advanced arthroscopy at the renowned New England Baptist Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. During his fellowship, he served as assistant team physician for the NBA’s Boston Celtics, and for both Harvard and Tufts University athletics. Dr. Kellum is a member of the prestigious Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society. Dr. Kellum has been actively involved in orthopedic surgery research throughout his medical career. He also has authored and co-authored several peer-reviewed orthopedic surgery articles and book chapters.
Beyond his credentials, Dr. Kellum is a compassionate, committed surgeon who has care and love for each and every patient he sees. It is Dr. Kellum’s passion to create an environment that treats and cares for the whole patient- mind, body and soul holistically. He aspires to build the full-body health and longevity of each of his patients through regenerative orthopedics, nutrition, exercise and complementary medicine. Dr. Kellum works to create an innovative and patient-centered atmosphere that feels like home.
What our patients are saying about our stem cell therapy
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Frequently Asked Questions
The FDA has not currently approved the majority of stem cell therapies in the U.S., despite demonstrated research of safety and efficacy. “Currently, the only stem cell treatments approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are products that treat certain cancers, and disorders of the blood and immune system.”
Stem cell therapy is currently not covered by insurance. As more research is done and the efficacy becomes clearer and it is FDA approved, this should change.
We offer payment plans for those in need. Book a consultation to see how we can serve you.
Stem cell therapies that use your own cells (autologous) to stimulate new cell and tissue growth are completely ethical. They also have a lower risk of immune system rejection.
The use of mesenchymal stem cells does not involve embryos or fetuses. These stem cells are harvested and cultured from your own tissue.
Patients with moderate to severe COVID-19 have experienced improvements as soon as two days after being treated with stem cells. Other patients have taken up to 45 days to return to feeling normal. Most benefits were seen in about 1-2 weeks after receiving stem cell therapy.
The most common side effect is an injection site reaction. There is the possibility, even with your own cells, that there can be immune system reactions to the injected solution.
As of 2022, no serious adverse events have been reported with adult stem cell administration in patients with severe COVID-19.
It’s possible that your medication needs will change after receiving stem cell treatments, but the effect will be highly individual. We always recommend that our patients work with their doctors to monitor their symptoms and possibly adjust their medications. Please do not change or come off your medications without speaking to your prescribing physician.
The only way to know for sure if you are a good candidate is to schedule a consultation and have the doctor assess your health and symptoms. After this, you will be given the options that are best for your individual scenario.
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Our in-house science team has researched the many types of stem cells available today. Together with our clinical teams, we believe that using your own stem cells are the safest, most effective treatment choice for your body and your health.
Our research-based treatments use your own stem cells to accelerate your healing — without surgery.
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