Tissue Kallikrein-Modified Human EPCs Improve Cardiac Function


When cells are implanted into the heart after a heart attack, the vast majority of them succumb to the hostile environment in the heart and die. Twenty-four hours after implantation there is a significant loss of cells (see Wu et al Circulation 2003 108:1302-1305). That fact that implanted bone marrow or fat-based stem cells benefit the heart despite their evanescence is a remarkable testimony to their healing power.

To mitigate this problem, stem cell scientists have used a variety of different strategies to increase the heartiness and survival of implanted stem cells. Two main strategies have emerged: preconditioning cells and genetically engineering cells. Both strategies increase the survival of implanted stem cells (see here, and here).

When it comes to genetically engineering stem cells, Lee and Julie Chao from the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, South Carolina have used endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs) from human umbilical cord blood to treat mice that had suffered heart attacks, except that these cells were genetically engineered to express “Tissue Kallikrein” or TK. TK is encoded by a gene called KLKB1, which is on chromosome 4 at region q34-35 (in human genetics, the long arm of a chromosome is the “q” arm and the small arm is the “p” or petite arm). TK is initially synthesized as an inactive precursor called prekallikrein. Prekallikrein must be clipped in order to be activated and the proteases (proteases are protein enzymes that cut other proteins into smaller fragment) that do so are either clotting factor XII, which plays a role in blood clotting, and PRCP, which is also known as Lysosomal Pro-X carboxypeptidase.

TK is a protease that degrades a larger protein called kininogen in two smaller peptides called bradykinin and kallidin, both of which are active signaling molecules. Bradykinin and kallidin cause relaxation of smooth muscles, thus lowering blood pressure, TK can also degrade plasminogen to form the active enzyme plasmin.

So why engineer EPCs to express TK? As it turns out, TK activates an internal protein in cells called Akt, and activated Akt causes cells to survive and prevents them from dying (see Krankel et al., Circulation Research 2008 103:1335-1343; Yao YY, et al., Cardiovascular Research 2008 80: 354-364; Yin H et a., J Biological Chem 2005 280: 8022-8030).

The first experiments were test tube experiments in which TK EPCs were incubated with cultured heart muscle cells to determine their ability to prevent cell death. When cultured heart muscle cells were exposed to hydrogen peroxide, they died left and right, but when they were incubated with the TK-EPCs and hydrogen peroxide, far fewer of them died.

Upper panel consists of cells stained with a TUNEL stain, which designates those cells that are dead or dying.  The bottom panel are DAPI stained cells, which is a nuclear stain that marks all available cells dead or live. From left to right, normal cells, cell exposed to hydrogen peroxide, cells exposed to hydrogen peroxide plus the genes for TK, and finally, cells exposed to hydrogen peroxide and TK-EPCs.
Upper panel consists of cells stained with a TUNEL stain, which designates those cells that are dead or dying. The bottom panel are DAPI stained cells, which is a nuclear stain that marks all available cells dead or live.
From left to right, normal cells, cell exposed to hydrogen peroxide, cells exposed to hydrogen peroxide plus the genes for TK, and finally, cells exposed to hydrogen peroxide and TK-EPCs.

When these cells were exposed to low levels of oxygen, a similar result was observed, expect that the cells co-incubated with TK-EPCs showed significantly less cell death.

When TK-EPCs were injected into the infarct border zones of the heart just after they had heart attacks, the results seven days after the heart attacks were striking. The heart function of the control mice was lousy to say the least. The heart walls had thinned, their ejection fractions were in the tank (~23%) and their echocardiograms were far from normal. However, the TK-EPC-injected mice had a relatively normal echocardiogram, thick heart wall, pretty good ejection fractions (52% and oppose to the 76% of mice that had never had a heart attack), and good heart function in general. Also, the size of the infarcts was reduced in those animals whose hearts had been injected with TK-EPCs.

Representative Masson’s trichrome staining. Original magnification is 10. (f) Echocardiographic measurements for determination of LV function from M-mode measurements. (g) MDA in the ischemic mouse heart at day 7 after MI. Values are expressed as mean±s.e.m. (n¼6, *Po0.05 vs Ad.Null-hEPC- and medium-treated group; #Po0.05 vs medium-treated group).
Representative Masson’s trichrome staining. Original magnification is 10. (f) Echocardiographic measurements for determination of LV function from M-mode measurements. (g) MDA in the ischemic mouse heart at day 7 after MI. Values are expressed as mean±s.e.m. (n¼6, *Po0.05 vs Ad.Null-hEPC- and medium-treated group; #Po0.05 vs medium-treated group).

There were two other bonuses to using TK-EPCs. First, as expected, the density of new blood vessels was substantially higher in hearts that received injections of TK-EPCs. Secondly, the TK-EPCs definitely survived better than their non-genetically engineered counterparts.

Ex-vivo optical imaging study. (a, b) Representative NIR fluorescent images in explanted organs at days 2 or 7 following implantation of DiDlabeled hEPCs into the ischemic myocardium of nude mice. Bars represent maximum radiance. (a: 2 days after cell delivery; b: 7 days after cell delivery). (c) Quantitative analysis of NIR fluorescent signals in explanted hearts among each group at two time points. All values are expressed as mean±s.e.m. (n¼3–4, *Po0.01 vs control group).
Ex-vivo optical imaging study. (a, b) Representative NIR fluorescent images in explanted organs at days 2 or 7 following implantation of DiDlabeled hEPCs into the ischemic myocardium of nude mice. Bars represent maximum radiance. (a: 2 days after cell delivery; b: 7 days after cell delivery). (c) Quantitative analysis of NIR fluorescent signals in explanted hearts among each group at two time points. All values are expressed as mean±s.e.m. (n¼3–4, *Po0.01 vs control group).

These results also confirm that TK works in heart muscle cells by activating the Akt protein inside the cells.  This establishes that TK works through the Akt pathway.

Once again, we see that transplantation of stem cells after a heart attack can improve the function and structure of the heart after a heart attack.  Indeed this strategy seems to work again and again.  These experiments were done in mice and therefore, they must be successful in a larger animal, like a pig before they can be deemed efficacious and safe for use in human clinical trials.  Even so, these results are hopeful.

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Culture Medium from Endothelial Progenitor Cells Heals Hearts


Endothelial Progenitor Cells or EPCs have the capacity to make new blood vessels but they also produce a cocktail of healing molecules. EPCs typically come from bone marrow, but they can also be isolated from circulating blood, and a few other sources.

The laboratory of Noel Caplice at the Center for Research in Vascular Biology in Dublin, Ireland, has grown EPCs in culture and shown that they make a variety of molecules useful to organ and tissue repair. For example, in 2008 Caplice published a paper in the journal Stem Cells and Development in workers in his lab showed that injection of EPCs into the hearts of pigs after a heart attack increased the mass of the heat muscle and that this increase in heart muscle was due to a molecule secreted by the EPCs called TGF-beta1 (see Doyle B, et al., Stem Cells Dev. 2008 Oct;17(5):941-51).

In other experiments, Caplice and his colleagues showed that the culture medium of EPCs grown in the laboratory contained a growth factor called “insulin-like growth factor-1” or IGF1. IGF1 is known to play an important role in the healing of the heart after a heart attack. Therefore, Caplice and his colleagues tried to determine if IGF1 was one of the main reasons EPCs heal the heart.

To test the efficacy of IGF1 from cultured EPCs, Caplice’s team grew EPCs in the laboratory and took the culture medium and tested the ability of this culture medium to stave off death in oxygen-starved heart muscle cells in culture. Sure enough, the EPC-conditioned culture medium prevented heart muscle cells from dying as a result of a lack of oxygen.

When they checked to see if IGF1 was present in the medium, it certainly was. IGF1 is known to induce the activity of a protein called “Akt” inside cells once they bind IGF1. The heart muscle cells clearly had activated their Akt proteins, thus strongly indicating the presence of IGF1 in the culture medium. Next they used an antibody that specifically binds to IGF1 and prevents it from binding to the surface of the heart muscle cells. When they added this antibody to the conditioned medium, it completely abrogated any effects of IGF1. This definitively demonstrates that IGF1 in the culture medium is responsible for its effects on heart muscle cells.

Will this conditioned medium work in a laboratory animal? The answer is yes. After inducing a heart attack, injection of the conditioned medium into the heart decreased the amount of cell death in the heart and increased the number of heart muscle cells in the infarct zone, and increased heart function when examined eight weeks after the heart attacks were induced. The density of blood vessels in the area of the infarct also increased as a result of injecting IGF1. All of these effects were abrogated by co-injection of the antibody that specifically binds IGF1.

From this study Caplice summarized that very small amounts of IGF1 (picogram quantities in fact) administered into the heart have potent acute and chronic beneficial effects when introduced into the heart after a heart attack.

These data are good enough grounds for proposing clinical studies. Hopefully we will see some in the near future.