Developmental Regression: Making Placental Cells from Embryonic Stem Cells


A research group from Copenhagen, Denmark has discovered a way to make placental cells from embryonic stem cells. In order to do this, the embryonic stem cells must be developmentally regressed so that they can become wither placenta-making cells rather than inner cell mass cells.

This study is significant for two reasons. First of all, it was thought to be impossible to make placental cells from embryonic stem cells because embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are derived from the inner cell mass cells of 4-5-day old human blastocysts. These early embryos begin as single-celled embryos that divide to form 12-16-cell embryos that undergo compaction. At this time, the cells on the outside become trophoblast cells, which will form the trophectoderm and form the placenta and the cells on the inside will form the inner cell mass, which will form the embryo proper and a few extraembryonic structures. Since ESCs are derived from inner cell mass cells that have been isolated and successfully cultured, they have already committed to a cell fate that is not placental. Therefore, to differentiate ESCs into placental cells would require that ESCs developmentally regress, which is very difficult to do in culture.

Secondly, if this could be achieved, several placental abnormalities could be more easily investigated, For example, pre-eclampsia is a very serious prenatal condition that is potentially fatal to the mother, and is linked to abnormalities of the placenta. Studying a condition such as pre-eclampsia in a culture system would definitely be a boon to gynecological research.

Because human ESCs can express genes that are characteristic of trophoblast cells if they are treated with a growth factor called Bone Morphogen Protein 4 (BMP4), it seems possible to make placental cells from them (see Xu R.H., Chen X., Li D.S., Li R., Addicks G.C., Glennon C., Zwaka T.P., Thomson J.A. BMP4 initiates human embryonic stem cell differentiation to trophoblast. Nat. Biotechnol. 2002;20:1261–1264, and Xu RH. Methods Mol Med. 2006;121:189-202). However, a study by Andreia S. Bernardo and others from the laboratory of Roger Pedersen at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute strongly suggested that BMP4 treatment, even in the absence of FGF signaling (another growth factor that has to be absent for BMP4 to induce trophoblast-like gene expression from ESCs) the particular genes induced by BMP4 are not exclusive to trophoblast cells and more closely resemble mesodermal gene profiles (see AS Bernardo, et al., Cell Stem Cell. 2011 Aug 5;9(2):144-55).

Into the fray of this debate comes a paper by stem cells scientists at the Danish Stem Cell Center at the University of Copenhagen that shows that it is possible to rewind the developmental state of ESCs.

In this paper, Josh Brickman and his team discovered that if they maintained mouse ESCs under specific conditions, they could cause the cells to regress into very early pre-blastocyst embryonic cells that can form trophoblast cells or ICM cells.

“It was a very exciting moment when we tested the theory, said Brinkman. “We found that not only can we make adult cells but also placenta, in fact we got precursors of placenta, yolk sac as well as embryo from just one cell.”

“This new discovery is crucial for the basic understanding of the nature of embryonic stem cells and could provide a way to model the development of the organism as a whole, rather than just the embryonic portion,” said Sophie Morgani, graduate student and first author of this paper. “In this way we may gain greater insight into conditions where extraembryonic development is impaired, as in the case of miscarriages.”

To de-differentiate the ESCs, Brinkman and his colleagues grew them in a solution called “2i.”  This 2i culture medium contained inhibitors of MEK and GSK3.  MEK is a protein kinase that is a central participant in the “MAP kinase signaling pathway, which is a signaling pathway that is central to cell growth and survival.  This particular signaling pathway is the target of the anthrax toxin, which illustrates its importance,  GSK3 stands for “glycogen synthase kinase 3,” which is a signaling protein in the Wnt pathway.

When the mouse ESCs were grown in 2i medium they expressed genes normally found only in pre-blastocyst embryos (Hex, for example).  Therefore, the 2i medium directs mouse ESCs to de-differentiate.  When ESCs grown in 2i were implanted into mouse embryos, they divided and differentiated into cells that were found in placental and embryonic fates.  This strongly argues that the ESCs grown in 2i became pre-blastocyst embryonic cells.  When the ESCs grown in 2i were also grown with LIF, which stands for “leukemia inhibitory factor” (LIF is a protein required for the maintenance of mouse ESCs in culture), the 2i cells were maintained in culture and grew while maintaining their pre-blastocyst status.  These cells differentiated into placental cells, embryonic or fetal cells.  Essentially, the 2i-cultured cells when from being pluripotent to being “totipotent,” or able to form ALL cell types in the embryo, fetus, or the adult.

ESC de-differentiation in totipotence

“In our study we have been able to see the full picture unifying LIF’s functions: what LIF really does, is to support the very early embryo state, where the cells can make both embryonic cells and placenta. This fits with LIFs’ role in supporting implantation,” said Brinkman.

This study definitively shows that ESCs are NOT embryos.  ESCs can regress in their development but embryos develop forward, becoming more committed as they develop and more restricted in the cell fates they can form.  This should effectively put the nail in the coffin of Lee Silver’s argument against Robert P. George that embryonic stem cells are embryos.  They are definitely and unequivocally, since embryos do NOT develop in reverse, but ESCs can and do.

Robert P. George argues that early human embryos, like the kind used to make ESCs are very young  members of the human race and deserve, at the minimum, the right not to be harmed.  Silver counters that George’s argument is inconsistent because George would not extend the same right to an ESC cell line, which is the same as an embryo.  His reasoning is that mouse ESCs can be transplanted into other mouse embryos that have four copies of each chromosome.  The messed up mouse embryo will make the placenta and the ESCs will make the inner cell mass and the mouse will develop and even come to term.  This is called tetraploid rescue, and Silver thinks that this procedure is a minor manipulation, but that it shows that ESCs are functionally the same as embryos.

I find Silver’s argument wanting on just about all fronts.  This is not a minor manipulation.  The tetraploid embryo is bound for certain death, but the implanted ESCs use the developmental context of the tetraploid embryo to find their place in it and make the inner cell mass.  The ESCs do not do it all on their own, but instead work with the tetraploid embryo in a complex developmental give-and-take to make an embryo with the placenta from one animal and the embryo proper from another.

Thus Silver’s first argument does not demonstrate what he says it does.  All it demonstrates is that ESCs can contribute to an embryo, which is something we already knew and expected.  This new data completes blows Silver’s assertion out of the water, since ESCs can take developmental steps backward and embryos by their very nature and programming, do not.  Thus these two entities are distinct entities and are not identical.  The early embryo is a very young human person, full stop.  We should stop dismembering them in laboratories just to stem our scientific curiosity.

New Liver Stem Cell Might Aid in Liver Regeneration


For patients with end-stage liver disease, a liver transplant is the only viable option to stave off death. Liver failure is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States, and finding a way to regenerate failing livers is one of the Holy Grails of liver research. New research suggests that one it will be feasible to use a patient’s own cells to regenerate their liver.

Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have discovered that a particular human embryonic stem cell line can be differentiated into a previously unknown liver progenitor cell that can differentiate into mature liver cells.

“The discovery of the novel progenitor represents a fundamental advance in this field and potentially to the liver regeneration field using cell therapy,” said Valerie Gouon-Evans, the senior author of this study and assistant professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine. “Until now, liver transplantation has been the most successful treatment for people with liver failure, but we have a drastic shortage of organs. This discovery may help circumvent that problem.”

Gouon-Evans collaborated with the laboratory of Matthew J. Evans and showed that the liver cells that were made from the differentiating liver progenitor cells could be infected with hepatitis C virus. Since this is a property that is exclusive to liver cells, this result shows that these are bona fide liver cells that are formed from the progenitor cells.

One critical step in this study was the identification of a new cell surface protein called KDR, which is the vascular endothelial growth factor 2. KDR was thought to be restricted to blood vessels, blood vessels progenitor cells (EPCs), and blood cells.  However, the Evans / Gouon-Evans study showed that activation of KDR in liver progenitor cells caused them to differentiate into mature liver cells (hepatocytes).  KDR is one of the two receptors for VEGF or vascular endothelial growth factor.  Mutations of this gene are implicated in infantile capillary hemangiomas.

KDR Protein Crystal Structure
KDR Protein Crystal Structure

The next step in this work is to determine if liver cells formed from these embryonic stem cells could potentially facilitate the repair of injured livers in animal models of liver disease.

Neural Stem Cells Improve Spinal Injuries in Rats


Disclaimer:  I am reporting on this experiment because of its significance for people with spinal cord-injuries even though I remain appalled at the manner in which the stem cells were acquired.

An international research team has reported that a single set of injections of human neural stem cells had provided significant neuronal regeneration and improvement of function in rats impaired by acute spinal cord injury.

Dr. Martin Marsala, who is professor of anesthesiology at the University of California, San Diego, with colleagues from academic institutions in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands, used neural stem cells derived from an aborted human fetus to treat spinal cord-injured rats.

Sprague-Dawley rats received spinal cord injuries at the level of the third lumbar vertebra by means of compression. Such injuries render the rats incapable of using their hind legs. They cannot climb a ladder, walk a catwalk or perform other tasks that require the effective use of their hind legs.

The stem cells that were transplanted into the spinal cords of these rats were NSI-566RSC cells, which were provided by the biotechnology company Neuralstem. These cells were initially isolated from the spinal cord of an eight-week old human fetus whose life was terminated through elective abortion. These cells have been grown in culture and split many times. They are a neural stem cell culture that has the capacity to form neurons and glia.

The rats were broken into six groups, and four of these groups received spinal cord injuries. One of these spinal cord-injured groups received injections of were injured NSI-566RSC cells (12 injections total, about 20,000 cells per microliter of fluid injected), another received injections of only fluid, and the third group received no injections. The final spinal cord-injured group of rats received injections of NSI-566RSC cells that had been genetically engineered to express a green glowing protein. Another group of rats were operated on, but no spinal cord injury was given to these animals, and the final group of rats were never operated on.

All rats that received injections of cells were administered powerful drugs to prevent their immune systems from rejecting the administered human cells before the injections (methylprednisolone acetate for those who are interested at 10 mg / kg), and after the stem cell injections (tacrolimus at 1.5 mg / kg).

The results were significant and exciting. In the words of Marsala, “The primary benefits were improvement in the positioning and control of paws during walking tests and suppression of muscle spasticity.” Spasticity refers to an exaggerated muscle tone or uncontrolled spasms of muscles. Spasticity is a serious and common complication of traumatic injury. It can cause severe cramping and uncontrolled contractions of muscles, which increases the patient’s pain and decreases their control.

First, it is clear from several control experiments that the injection procedure did not affect the spinal cord function of these animals, since the sham injected rats had perfectly normal use of their hind limbs and normal sensory function of their limbs. Thus the injection procedure is innocuous. Also, the use of the drugs to suppress the immune response were also equally unimportant when it came to the spinal cord health of the rats.

Two months after the stem cell injections, the rats were subjected to the “catwalk test,” in which the animals walked a narrow path and their paw position was assessed. As you can see in the figure below, the stem cell-injected rats have a paw position that is far more similar to the normal rats than to the spinal cord injured rats.

Improvement in hind paw positioning and muscle spasticity in SCI animals grafted with HSSC. A: CatWalk gait analysis of hind paw positioning at two months after treatment. In comparison to SCI control animals, a significant improvement was seen in HSSC-grafted animals. B1-B3: An example of paw step images taken from the CatWalk software in naïve (B1), SCI-control (B2) and SCI-HSSC-treated animals (B3). Note a large paw footprint overlap between the front and hind paws in naïve animals (B1) but a substantial dissociation in footprint overlap in SCI controls (B2). An improvement in paw placement in SCI-HSSC-treated animals can be seen (B3). C: Statistical analysis showed significant suppression of spasticity response (expressed as a muscle resistance ratio: values at two months versus seven days post injury in ‘HIGH spasticity’ HSSC-treated animals if compared to ‘HIGH spasticity’ controls). D: To identify the presence of muscle spasticity in fully awake animals, the hind-paw ankle is rotated 40° at a velocity of 80°/second. Spasticity is identified by exacerbated EMG activity measured in the gastrocnemius muscle and corresponding increase in muscle resistance. In control SCI animals with developed spasticity (that is, ‘high spasticity’/HIGH group), no change in spasticity response if compared to seven days post-vehicle injection was seen at two months (compare D1 to D3). In contrast to SCI control animals, a decrease in spasticity response was seen in SCI-HSSC-treated animals at two months after cell injections (compare D4 to D6). To identify mechanical resistance, animals are anesthetized with isoflurane at the end of the recording session and the contribution of mechanical resistance (which is, isoflurane non-sensitive) is calculated. (D2, D5: data expressed as mean ± SEM; one-way ANOVAs). ANOVA, analysis of variance; EMG, electromyography; HSSC, human fetal spinal cord-derived neural stem cells; SCI, spinal cord injury; SEM, standard error of the mean.
Improvement in hind paw positioning and muscle spasticity in SCI animals grafted with HSSC. A: CatWalk gait analysis of hind paw positioning at two months after treatment. In comparison to SCI control animals, a significant improvement was seen in HSSC-grafted animals. B1-B3: An example of paw step images taken from the CatWalk software in naïve (B1), SCI-control (B2) and SCI-HSSC-treated animals (B3). Note a large paw footprint overlap between the front and hind paws in naïve animals (B1) but a substantial dissociation in footprint overlap in SCI controls (B2). An improvement in paw placement in SCI-HSSC-treated animals can be seen (B3). C: Statistical analysis showed significant suppression of spasticity response (expressed as a muscle resistance ratio: values at two months versus seven days post injury in ‘HIGH spasticity’ HSSC-treated animals if compared to ‘HIGH spasticity’ controls). D: To identify the presence of muscle spasticity in fully awake animals, the hind-paw ankle is rotated 40° at a velocity of 80°/second. Spasticity is identified by exacerbated EMG activity measured in the gastrocnemius muscle and corresponding increase in muscle resistance. In control SCI animals with developed spasticity (that is, ‘high spasticity’/HIGH group), no change in spasticity response if compared to seven days post-vehicle injection was seen at two months (compare D1 to D3). In contrast to SCI control animals, a decrease in spasticity response was seen in SCI-HSSC-treated animals at two months after cell injections (compare D4 to D6). To identify mechanical resistance, animals are anesthetized with isoflurane at the end of the recording session and the contribution of mechanical resistance (which is, isoflurane non-sensitive) is calculated. (D2, D5: data expressed as mean ± SEM; one-way ANOVAs). ANOVA, analysis of variance; EMG, electromyography; HSSC, human fetal spinal cord-derived neural stem cells; SCI, spinal cord injury; SEM, standard error of the mean.

Secondly, when muscle spasticity was measured, the stem cell-injected rats showed definite decreases in muscle spasticity. The spinal cord-injured rats that received no stem cell injections showed no such changes.

Sensory assessments also showed improvements in the stem cell-treated rats, but the improvements were not stellar. Nevertheless, the stem cell-treated rats progressively improved in their sensory sensitivity whereas the non-treated spinal cord-injured rats consistently showed no such improvement.

Amelioration of hypoesthesia in SCI-HSSC-grafted animals. Baseline and biweekly assessments of perceptive thresholds for (A) mechanical and (B) thermal stimuli, applied below the level of injury, showed a trend towards progressive recovery in SCI-HSSC-grafted animals. C: When expressed as percentages of the maximal possible effect for mechanical and thermal perceptive thresholds improvements, SCI-HSSC-treated animals showed significant improvements in sensory function for both mechanical and thermal components. (A-C: data expressed as mean ± SEM; A-B: repeated measures ANOVAs; C: Student t-tests). ANOVA, analysis of variance; HSSC, human fetal spinal cord-derived neural stem cells; SCI, spinal cord injury; SEM, standard error of the mean.
Amelioration of hypoesthesia in SCI-HSSC-grafted animals. Baseline and biweekly assessments of perceptive thresholds for (A) mechanical and (B) thermal stimuli, applied below the level of injury, showed a trend towards progressive recovery in SCI-HSSC-grafted animals. C: When expressed as percentages of the maximal possible effect for mechanical and thermal perceptive thresholds improvements, SCI-HSSC-treated animals showed significant improvements in sensory function for both mechanical and thermal components. (A-C: data expressed as mean ± SEM; A-B: repeated measures ANOVAs; C: Student t-tests). ANOVA, analysis of variance; HSSC, human fetal spinal cord-derived neural stem cells; SCI, spinal cord injury; SEM, standard error of the mean.

What were the implanted cells doing? To answer this question, Marsala and his co-workers examined tissue sections of spinal cords from the rats implanted with the glowing green stem cells. According to Marsala, the implanted neural stem cells are stimulating host neuron regeneration and partially replacing the function of lost neurons.

Marsala explained: “Grafted spinal stem cells are a rich source of different growth factors which can have a neuroprotective effect and can promote sprouting of nerve fibers of host neurons. We have demonstrated that grafted neurons can develop contacts with the host neurons and, to some extent, restore the connectivity between centers, above and below the injury, which are involved in motor and sensory processing.”

The implanted neural stem cells definitely showed extensive integration with the spinal nerves of the host rats. Again Marsala, “In all cell-grafted animals, there was a robust engraftment and neuronal maturation of grafted human neurons was noted.” Marsala continued: “Importantly cysts or cavities were not present in any cell-treated animal. The injury-caused cavity was completely filled by grafted cells.”

Effective cavity-filling effect by transplanted cells in SCI HSSC-injected animals. At the end of the two-month post-treatment survival, animals were perfusion fixed with 4% PFA, the spinal column dissected and MRI-imaged in situ before spinal cord dissection for further histological processing. A, B: Three-dimensional MRI images of spinal cord segments in animals with previous traumatic injury and treated with spinal HSSC (A) or media (B) injections. Note the near complete injected-cells cavity-filling effect in HSSC-treated animals. A1, A2, B1, B2: To validate the presence of grafted cells or cavitation at the epicenter of injury, the same region was histologically processed, semi-thin plastic sections prepared and compared to the corresponding MRI image (compare A1 to A2 and B1 to B2). C: Two-dimensional MRI image taken from a naïve-non-injured animal. D: Quantification of the cavity and scar volume from serial MRI images showed significantly decreased cavity and scar volumes in SCI-HSSC-injected animals if compared to media-injected SCI controls. (D: data expressed as mean ± SEM; Student t-tests), (Scale Bars: A, B: 5 mm; A1, A2, B1, B2, C: 3 mm). HSSC, human fetal spinal cord-derived neural stem cells; MRI, magnetic resonance imaging; PFA, paraformaldehyde; SCI, spinal cord injury; SEM, standard error of the mean.
Effective cavity-filling effect by transplanted cells in SCI HSSC-injected animals. At the end of the two-month post-treatment survival, animals were perfusion fixed with 4% PFA, the spinal column dissected and MRI-imaged in situ before spinal cord dissection for further histological processing. A, B: Three-dimensional MRI images of spinal cord segments in animals with previous traumatic injury and treated with spinal HSSC (A) or media (B) injections. Note the near complete injected-cells cavity-filling effect in HSSC-treated animals. A1, A2, B1, B2: To validate the presence of grafted cells or cavitation at the epicenter of injury, the same region was histologically processed, semi-thin plastic sections prepared and compared to the corresponding MRI image (compare A1 to A2 and B1 to B2). C: Two-dimensional MRI image taken from a naïve-non-injured animal. D: Quantification of the cavity and scar volume from serial MRI images showed significantly decreased cavity and scar volumes in SCI-HSSC-injected animals if compared to media-injected SCI controls. (D: data expressed as mean ± SEM; Student t-tests), (Scale Bars: A, B: 5 mm; A1, A2, B1, B2, C: 3 mm). HSSC, human fetal spinal cord-derived neural stem cells; MRI, magnetic resonance imaging; PFA, paraformaldehyde; SCI, spinal cord injury; SEM, standard error of the mean.

Marsala’s goal is to used a neuronal stem cell line derived from a patient-specific induced pluripotent stem cell line in a clinical trial. For now, the UC San Diego Institutional Review Board or IRB is reviewing a small phase 1 clinical trial to test the safety and efficacy of this neural stem cell line in patients with spinal cord injuries who have no feeling or motor function below the level of the spinal cord injury.

Mouse Model of Huntington’s Disease Shows Replacement of Lost Neurons by Endogenous Stem Cell Populations


Huntington’s disease (HD) is a debilitating and invariably fatal disease that results from mutations in the IT15 gene. IT151 stands for “interesting transcript 15,” but it is more commonly referred to as the “huntingtin” gene. Mutations in the front of the gene (exon 1 for those who are interested) expand a run of CAG codons, and these mutations are probably the result of DNA polymerase slippage. Because CAG codons encode the amino acid glutamine, the mutant proteins contain long polyglutamine repeats and these repeats tend to clump inside neurons.

These protein aggregates form in neurons of the “striatum.” The striatum is a region of the brain that is also called the striate nucleus of the striate body. The striatum receives its name from the fact that it is organized in striped layers of gray and white matter. The striate nucleus is part of the cerebrum or forebrain.

Striatum

Mutant Huntington (Htt) protein has a toxic that causes cell death by means of unknown mechanisms. Clinically, the most obvious symptoms of HD involve involuntary movements of the arms, legs, and face. But the severe cognitive and personality changes are the most devastating to HD patients and most troubling for their caregivers.

Researchers are using animal models of HD to study the disease pathogenesis, to elucidate areas of the brain involved in structural and functional decline, and to evaluate potential therapeutic interventions. These animal models include injecting toxins into the brain to kill off those populations of neurons that typically die in HD patients, and transgenic models in which animals are bred with either extra mutant copies of the Htt gene or a pair of copies of the mutant Htt gene that have replaced the original, normal copies. All of these model systems have limitations, but they are all useful in some way for assessing the pathology of HD.

This long introduction leads us to new data from the laboratory of Steve Goldman, the co-director of the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Center for Translational Medicine. Goldman and his colleagues triggered the production of new neurons in mice that had a rodent form of HD. These new neurons successfully integrated into the brain’s existing neural networks and dramatically extended the survival of the mice.

“This study demonstrates the feasibility of a completely new concept to treat Huntington’s disease, by recruiting the brain’s endogenous neural stem cells to regenerate cell lost the disease,” said Goldman.

One of the types of neurons most commonly affected in HD patients is the medium spinal neuron, which is critical to motor control. Goldman banked on findings from previous studies in his laboratory on canaries. Songbirds such as canaries have the ability to lay down new neurons in the adult brain when mating season comes. The male birds, in response to a flush of male sex hormones,, grow a gaggle of new neurons in the vocal control centers of the brain, and this provides the bird the means to sing specific songs in order to attract mates. This event is known as adult neurogenesis, and Goldman and Fernando Nottebohm of the Rockefeller University discovered this phenomenon in the early 1980s.

“Our work with canaries essentially provided us with the information we needed to understand how to add new neurons to adult brain tissue,” said Goldman. Once we mastered how this happened in birds, we set about how to replicate the process in the adult mammalian brain.”

Humans possess the ability to make new neurons, but Goldman’s lab demonstrated in the 1990s that a font of neuronal precursor cells exist in the lining of the ventricles (these are structures at the very center of the brain and spinal cord that are filled with cerebrospinal fluid). In early development, these cells are actively producing neurons.

Shortly after birth, the neural stem cells stop generating neurons and produce support cells called glia. Some parts of the human brain continue to produce neurons into adulthood, the most prominent example is the hippocampus, where memories are formed and stored. However, the striatum, new neuron production is switched off in adulthood.

Goldman sought to switch neuron production back on in the striatum. He tested a cadre of growth factors that would switch the neural stem cells of the striatum (a region that is ravaged by HD) from producing new glia to producing new neurons. Goldman, however, had some help from his recent work in canaries. Namely that once mating season was upon the birds, targeted expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) flared up in the vocal centers of the brain, where many new neurons were being produced.

Goldman used genetically engineered viruses to express BDNF and another protein called “Noggin” in the striatum. Goldman and others found that a single intraventricular injection of the adenoviruses expressing BDNF and Noggin triggered the sustained recruitment of new neurons in both normal of R6/2 (HD) mice. These treated mice also showed that the newly formed neurons were recruited to form new medium spiny neurons; the ones destroyed in HD. These new neurons also matured and achieved circuit integration.

Medium Spinal Neuron
Medium Spinal Neuron

Also the treated mice showed delayed deterioration of motor function and substantially increased survival.

When the same experiments were conducted in squirrel monkeys, there was a similar addition of new striatal neurons.

Thus, induced neuronal addition may therefore represent a promising avenue for decreasing the ravages of HD and increasing cognitive ability.

ATHENA Trial Tests Fat-Derived Stem Cells as a Treatment for Heart Failure


The FDA-approved ATHENA trial is the brainchild of stem cell researchers at the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital. The ATHENA trial is the first trial in the United States to examine the efficacy of adipose-derived regenerative cells or ADRCs as a treatment for a severe form of heart failure.

To harvest ADRCs, Texas Heart Institute researchers used a technique that was developed by Cytori Therapeutics, which is a biotechnology company that specializes in cell-based regenerative therapies. Previous clinical trials in Europe strongly suggest that such ADR-based therapies are quite safe and feasible. To date, physicians are the Texas Heart Institute have treated six patients as a part of the ATHENA trial.

athena_process_illustration_500x369.jpg

James Willerson, the president and medical director of the Texas Heart Institute, is the principal investigator in the ATHENA trial. Willerson said, “We have found that body fat tissue is a valuable source of regenerative stem cells that are relatively easy to access. We have high hopes for the therapeutic promise of this research and believe that it will lead quickly to larger trials.”

The subjects for the ATHENA trial are patients who suffer from chronic heart failure due to coronary heart disease. Coronary heart disease results from blockage of the coronary vessels and feed the heart muscle and limits the oxygen supply to the heart muscle, and consequently, the pumping activity of the heart muscle. Data from the American Heart Association reveals that there are about 5.1 million Americans who currently live with heart failure, and in many cases, the only viable treatment is a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) or a heart transplant. Unfortunately, there are only about 2,200 heart transplants a year due to a severe shortage of organs.

Coronary artery disease

Patients who are enrolled in the ATHENA trials are randomized and some will receive a placebo treatment and others will receive the experimental treatment. All patients will undergo liposuction in order to remove adipose or fat tissue. Processing of the fat tissue isolates the ADRCs, and the experimental patients will have these cells injected directly into their heart muscle, but the placebo patients will receive injections of culture medium or saline that contains no cells. ATHENA will measure several data endpoints that include objective measures of heart function, exercise capacity, and questionnaires that assess the symptoms and health-related quality-of-life.

The US trial will enroll a total of 45 patients at several centers around the country and these centers include the Texas Heart Institute, Minneapolis Heart Institute, Scripps Green Hospital in San Diego, CA, the University of Florida at Gainesville, and Cardiology P.C. in Birmingham. Patients are being enrolled.

Healthline has recently compiled the statistics on heart disease in an impressive and colorful manner at this link.

Adult Stem Cells to Cure Diabetes?


Type 1 diabetics must inject themselves with insulin on a daily basis in order to survive. Without these shots, they would die.

Insulin injection

In most cases, type 1 diabetics have diabetes because their immune systems have attacked their insulin-producing cells and have destroyed them. However, a recent study at the University of Missouri has revealed that the immune system-dependent damage to the pancreas in type 1 diabetics goes beyond direct damage to the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, The immune response also destroys blood vessels that feed tissues within the pancreas. This finding could provide the impetus for a cure that includes a combination of drugs and stem cells.

Habib Zaghouani and his research team at the University of Missouri School of Medicine discovered that “type 1 diabetes destroys not only insulin-producing cells but also blood vessels that support them,” explained Zaghouani. “When we realized how important the blood vessels were to insulin production, we developed a cure that combines a drug we created with adult stem cells from bone marrow. The drug stop the immune system attack, and the stem cells generate new blood vessels that help insulin-producing cells to multiply and thrive.”

Type 1 diabetes or juvenile diabetes, can lead to numerous complications, including cardiovascular disease, kidney damage, nerve damage, osteoporosis and blindness. The immune response that leads to type 1 diabetes attacks the pancreas, and in particular, the cell clusters known as the islet of Langerhans or pancreatic islets. Pancreatic islets contain several hormone-secreting cells types, but the one cell type in particular attacked by the immune system in type 1 diabetics are the insulin-secreting beta cells.

Pancreatic islets
Pancreatic islets

Destruction of the beta cells greatly decreases the body’s capability to make insulin, and without sufficient quantities of insulin, the body’s capability to take up, utilize and store sugar decelerates drastically, leading to mobilization of fats stores, the production of acid, wasting of several organs, excessive water loss, constant hunger, thirst, urination, acidosis (acidification of the blood), and eventually coma and death if left untreated.

The immune system not only destroys the beta cells, it also causes collateral damage to small blood vessels (capillaries) that carry blood to and from the pancreatic islets. This blood vessel damage led Zaghouani to examine ways to head this off at the pass and heal the resultant damage.

In previous studies, Zaghouani and others developed a drug against type 1 diabetes called Ig-GAD2. Treatment with this drug stops the immune system from attacking beta cells, but, unfortunately too few beta cells survived the onslaught from the immune system to reverse the disease. In his newest study, Zaghouani and his colleagues treated non-obese diabetic (NOD) with Ig-GAD2 and then injected bone marrow-based stem cells into the pancreas in the hope that these stem cells would differentiate into insulin-secreting beta cells.

“The combination of Ig-GAD2 and bone marrow [stem] cells did result in production of new beta cells, but not in the way we expected,” explained Zaghouani. “We thought the bone marrow [stem] cells would evolve directly into beta cells. Instead, the bone marrow cells led to growth of new blood vessels, and it was the new blood vessels that facilitated reproduction of the new beta cells. In other words, we discovered that to cure type 1 diabetes, we need to repair the blood vessels that allow the subject’s beta cells to grow and distribute insulin throughout the body.”

Zaghouani would lie to acquire a patent for his promising treatment and hopes to translate his preclinical research discovery from mice to larger animals and then to humans. In the meantime, his research continues to be funded by the National Institutes of Health and the University of Missouri.

Stem Cells to Make Red Blood Cells and Platelets in Culture


A collaborative study between Boston University School of Public Health and researchers at Boston Medical Center has used induced pluripotent stem cells to make unlimited numbers of human red blood cells and platelets in culture.

This finding could potentially reduce the need for blood donations to treat patients who require blood transfusions. Such research could also help researchers examine fresh and new therapeutic targets in order to treat blood diseases such a sickle-cell anemia.

The lead scientist on this project was George Murphy, assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Boston University. Murphy’s main collaborator was David Sherr, professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Medicine and the Boston University School of Public Health.

Induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs are made from adult cells by applying genetic engineering technology to the adult cells that introduces genes into them. The introduction of four specific genes de-differentiates the adult cells into pluripotent stem cells that can, potentially, differentiate into any adult cell type. This makes iPSCs powerful tools for research and potential therapeutic agents for regenerative medicine.

In this study, Murphy and others used iPSCs from the CreM iPS Cell Bank and exposed them to a battery of different growth factors in order to push them to differentiate into different adult cell types. They were looking for the precise cocktail to differentiate iPSCs into red blood cells, since they wanted to further study red blood cell development in detail.

One group of compounds given to the set of iPSCs were molecules that activate “aryl hydrocarbon” receptors. Aryl hydrocarbon receptors (AHRs) play important roles in the expansion of hematopoietic stem cells, which make blood cells, since antagonism of AHRs promotes expansion of hematopoietic stem cells (see AE Boitano et al.,Science 10 September 2010: Vol. 329 no. 5997 pp. 1345-1348). In this case, however, Murphy and his colleagues observed a dramatic increase in the production of functional red blood cells and platelets in a short period of time. THis suggests that the ARH is important for normal blood cell development.

Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor
Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor

“This finding has enabled us to overcome a major hurdle in terms of being able to produce enough of these cells to have a potential therapeutic impact both in the lab and, down the line, in patients,” said Murphy. “Additionally, our work suggests that AHR has a very important biological function in how blood cells form in the body.”

“Patient-specific red blood cells and platelets derived from iPSC cells, which would solve problems related to immunogenicity and contamination, could potentially be used therapeutically and decrease the anticipated shortage and the need for blood donation,” added Murphy.

iPS-derived cells have tremendous potential as model systems in which scientists can test and develop new treatments for disease, given that such diseases can be constructed in the laboratory. These iPSC-derived red blood cells could be used by malaria researchers, and IPSC-derived platelets could be used to explore cardiovascular disease and treatments for blood clotting disorders.

Because my mother died from myelodysplasia, this finding has some personal interest to me. Mom had a difficult blood type to match, since she had the Bombay blood type (H). Finding blood for her was a major tour de force, and as she received blood that was less and less well matched to her body, she suffered the ravages of poorly matched blood. A treatment of red blood cells made from IPSCs derived from her own cells might have extended her life and even improved her quality of life in her later years.

I look forward to this research eventually culminating in clinical trials.