(WSVN) - Researchers at the University of Miami say they may now have the perfect treatment for saving those with the most severe cases of COVID-19. The Nightteam’s Kevin Ozebek has the details in tonight’s 7 Investigates.

Jilma Espinoza spent the Fourth of July enjoying the fireworks.

A few days later, she could barely walk.

Jilma Espinoza, stem cell patient: “I thought it was because of the fumes after the Fourth of July fireworks. I started to feel sick. I started to feel very fatigued.”

Her daughter Cynthia grew worried as her mother developed more severe symptoms.

Cynthia Lopez, Jilma’s daughter: “When we saw she was having a lot of trouble breathing and she couldn’t get up from bed anymore, we decided to take her to the hospital.”

Jilma tested positive for COVID-19 and soon had severe pneumonia.

Doctors from the University of Miami Health System tried to treat her, but she deteriorated and was soon intubated.

Kevin Ozebek: “Were you terrified at that point?”

Jilma Espinoza: “Yes, I was very scared. I thought my life was going to end, and I wasn’t going to come back.”

Cynthia Lopez: “I was preparing myself for her not to come back, but I prayed every day that she would.”

While Jilma was in a medically induced coma, doctors asked her daughter if she’d allow her mother to receive an experimental treatment.

UM was running a trial to see if stem cell therapy could be key in the fight against COVID.

Dr. Camillo Ricordi, UM Miller School of Medicine: “When COVID exploded, we thought we had the perfect source to treat the lung in the patients most impacted by the most severe cases of COVID-19.”

Dr. Camillo Ricordi is the director of UM’s cell transplant center.

He and his colleagues are pioneers in turning stem cells into medicine.

Stem cells have been proven to have a profound effect on the human immune system and can relieve inflammation.

Kevin Ozebek: “Why do these cells fight inflammation? How do they do it?”

Dr. Camillo Ricordi: “If they sense inflammation, they start secreting substances that inactivate the inflammatory cycle. They also have properties to promote tissue regeneration and repair.”

Since COVID-19 can trigger the immune system to create inflammation, Dr. Ricordi thought stem cells could fight the effects of COVID, too, so he infused 24 severely sick COVID patients with stem cells harvested from umbilical cords of healthy newborn babies.

More than 80% of the patients recovered in 30 days.

Kevin Ozebek: “Potentially, could they have died without this stem cell infusion?”

Dr. Camillo Ricordi: “Well, definitely, we know from the control group that over 50%, 58% of the patients in this condition that did not receive the stem cell infusion died.”

“Hola, mommy!”

Jilma was one the two dozen who received the experimental infusion. This is her shortly after the treatment.

Cynthia Lopez: “We were very surprised because she got better within a week.”

Within two weeks, Jilma went from mentally preparing for death to being back in her garden at home.

She still has to do breathing exercises and build back her strength, but Jilma feels better every day.

Kevin Ozebek: “If you did not get this treatment, do you think you would be talking to me today?”

Jilma Espinoza: “No, I don’t think so because the doctors didn’t think I had a chance.”

Dr. Ricardi says the next step is seeing if earlier stem cell infusions can prevent people with COVID from ever developing severe symptoms.

The FDA has only approved stem cell transfusions for COVID patients in critical, life-threatening condition.

More testing needs to be done before it could get full approval.


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