Stimulating stem cells to help COVID-19 patients recover

By Megan Mayerle, PhD
June 8, 2020

A subset of COVID-19 patients, including both young and elderly individuals, exhibit symptoms of such severity that they are hospitalized in the intensive care unit (ICU) and must be placed on a ventilator since they cannot breathe on their own. One of the most common issues experienced by ICU survivors is muscle weakness and fatigue, particularly of the diaphragm, which manifests as Ventilator Induced Diaphragm Dysfunction (VIDD). COVID-19 patients are particularly susceptible to VIDD because they spend weeks, as opposed to days, immobilized and on mechanical ventilation. Such patients could take months to years to fully recover, and many may not fully recover at all. Cardiovascular Institute member and stem cell and muscle biologist Dr. Helen Blau and her team have just been awarded a grant by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to tackle this problem. Her group’s approach is to apply an existing small molecule that stimulates muscle growth and increases muscle mass, strength, and endurance in limb muscles to the diaphragm. If successful, this approach could increase ventilator availability at hospitals by decreasing the duration patients are ventilated and significantly decrease recovery time and improve quality of life for COVID-19 survivors.

Dr. Helen Blau