When the Covid-19 pandemic upended daily lives, biomedical research across the globe felt the strain as pandemic-related shipping and manufacturing delays began leading to supply line shortages. As lockdowns were instituted, cell therapy starting material became particularly difficult to source because the COVID-19 pandemic posed risks to donors traveling to hospitals and clinics.
With so much effort focused on finding treatments for COVID-19 patients, researchers and physicians alike became concerned about the welfare of their other patients, particularly those at high risk, such as people with cancer or autoimmune disease. Healthcare professionals began recommending that life-saving stem cell transplants be delayed, to minimize the risk of cancer patients contracting COVID-19.  Clinical trials not related to COVID-19 faced interruptions and postponements.  All of this could easily have created a perfect storm that overwhelmed the biomedical research supply chain- yet, for the most part, it didn’t. So what essentially saved the biomedical industry during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? In a word, cryopreservation.
Cryopreservation, the art of freezing cells and other biological samples to preserve their viability and functionality, is already a practical necessity for shipping and storing many cell-based products. Recent studies have shown that COVID-19 associated delays were impacting cell viability and function . However, cells cryopreserved under optimal conditions retain high viability and function, provide for on-hand availability, and can help researchers limit variability by preserving specific cellular characteristics over the long term.
Over this past year, circumstances have proven just how vital cryopreservation is to the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries. Shortages and unreliable access to freshly isolated cells led to significantly increased reliance on cryopreserved cellular starting materials. In the face of sourcing and logistical challenges, a massive shift toward the use of cryopreserved hematopoietic stem cells for transplants forced physicians to reevaluate preconceived notions of the preferability of freshly isolated versus cryopreserved cells. Cryopreserved hematopoietic stem cells from allogeneic donors have been shown to successfully reconstitute the immune system in cancer patients, with no difference in overall survival rates. 
Cryopreserved immune cells from both healthy donors and COVID-19 patient donors have played a direct and critical role in understanding the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The following COVID-19 -related products are available to researchers:
- COVID-19 convalescent plasma: plasma from individuals who have recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infection has been shown to aid in the recovery of some patients with severe disease. It is also helping scientists in understanding the immune protective response.
- COVID-19 serum: closely related to plasma but does not contain clotting factors. Serum is separated from whole blood and often used for blood tests and research on the COVID-19 immune response.
- COVID-19 PBMC: PBMC are used to study immune response and to isolate specific immune cell populations such as B and T lymphocytes.
- Anti-SARS-CoV-2 T cells: Antigen-specific T cells that respond to SARS-CoV-2 continue to be critically important to the analysis of T cell immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Access to cryopreserved donor samples facilitated research into how the SARS-CoV-2 virus infects cells, how it impacts our immune system, and how a hyperactive immune response can lead to severe disease. This knowledge allowed scientists to successfully develop vaccines against the virus in record time.
Even as vaccines are produced and distributed, an urgent need persists for better treatments and a greater understanding of how COVID-19 and similar diseases affect human health. The impacts of COVID-19 will be with us for a long time. Access to cryopreserved immune cells has significantly aided the resilience of the scientific community, not only in the fight against COVID-19 but in preserving the ability to continue biomedical research of all kinds.
At Cellero, cryopreserved immune cells and cryopreserved COVID-19-related products are directly supporting ongoing COVID-19 research, as well as advances in cancer, autoimmune disease, and a deeper understanding of the immune response. Please visit our website to learn more.
- DeMarco C. COVID-19 and stem cell transplants: What you should know. MD Anderson Cancer Center Mar 2020.
- Lupkin S. Coronavirus Pandemic Brings Hundreds Of U.S. Clinical Trials To A Halt. NPR Mar 2020.
- Purtill D., et al. Variable CD341 recovery of cryopreserved allogeneic HPC products transplant implications during the COVID-19 pandemic. Blood Advances. 4(17); 4147-4150. Sep 2020.
- Dholaria B., et al. Securing the graft during pandemic: are we ready for cryopreservation for all? Biology of Blood and Marrow Transplantation. 26: e145-e146. 2020.