Coronavirus Treatment: San Francisco scientists' stem cell research could help in COVID-19 fight

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Among the mysteries surrounding novel coronavirus is its ability to turn deadly in some patients but not others.

In a percentage of those fatal cases, it's the virus' effect on the heart or the lungs that make it a killer.

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Now, researchers with San Francisco's Gladstone Institutes are struggling to learn why.

"Ideally we'd have a human heart and human lung tissue in front of us to study what that virus is doing. We obviously can't take biopsies from people's lungs or heart to do that," says Deepak Srivastava, M.D..

Instead, Srivastava and his team are using a Nobel Prize-winning technology they helped pioneer to search for an answer. It involves turning a patients' skin cells into stem cells, which can differentiate into almost any kind of cell in the human body.

"We can actually take skin cells and turn them into stem cells that can become human lung and human heart tissue," he explains.

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One potential strategy is to create tissue from patients who survived COVID-19 without much trouble and compare it with engineered heart or lung tissue from very serious cases.

Could it be a matter of genetics? A quirk in the way the virus attacks? Or maybe something else altogether.

"We're still trying to figure out how much of this serious fatality is occurring because of the virus's damage, compared to how much is because of our own immune systems overreaction," says Srivastava.

The race for answers is on. And when they come, Srivastava believes their strategy could play a significant role in finding ways to understand and potentially defeat the virus.

Get the latest news, information and videos about the novel coronavirus pandemic here

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