Nanotubes Mediate Functional Switch in Mesenchymal Stem Cells to Cardiac Muscle-like Cells

Stem cell scientists from Dublin, Ireland have exploited the electrical properties of a material that is widely used in nanotechnology to grow cells that can more efficiently regenerate the heart.

In Ireland, heart disease is the leading cause of death. Heart attacks damage the heart muscle, and the adult heart has very little ability to heal itself. Presently, there are no approved methods for repairing damaged heart muscle.

New work from a research team at the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI) at the National University of Ireland, in collaboration with Trinity College Dublin brought together the skill of materials scientists, biologists and physicians.

Cell-based therapies for heart disease have been the subject of intense research over the last ten years, and there have certainly been some very hopeful clinical trials in the last few years. This new approach, led by Drs. Valerie Barron and Mary Murphy at the REMEDI, capitalized on an observation of carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes are reactive to electrical stimulation. These nanotubes were then used to modify the activity of mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow.
According to Dr. Barrow, “The electrical properties of the nanomaterial triggered a response in the mesenchymal (adult) stem cells, which we sourced from human bone marrow. In effect, they became electrified, which made them morph into more cardiac-like cells.” She continued: “This is a totally new approach and provides a ready-source of tailored cells, which have the potential to be used as a new therapy. Excitingly, this symbiotic strategy lays the foundation for other clinically challenging areas such as in the brain and the spinal cord.”

Mesenchymal stem cells have a deep history as a source of cells for treating heart attack patients. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) have the capacity to improve the heart if implanted after a heart attack, but the mechanism by which they do this is multifaceted and somewhat mysterious. The therapeutic capacity of MSCs is improved if they are pre-conditioned or genetically modified to survive better in the hostile environment of the heart after a heart attack. However, MSCs have only a very limited ability to differentiate into heart muscle cells, and this is one of the largest limitations MSCs as therapeutic agents for heart attacks.

This new work suggests that MSCs can be shifted into a more heart muscle-like state by means of electrical stimulation. Nanotube-mediated stimulation seems to be even more effective for such a shift, and this work might be the beginning of a new strategy to augment the therapeutic capacities of MSCs for treating heart attacks.