A damaged organ usually needs to be removed (spleen or single kidney) or a new organ must be transplanted to replace the damaged organ (liver, heart, lungs, kidney). Wouldn’t it be terrific to inject blood vessel-making stem cells and let the organ heal itself? Such a strategy would render organ transplantation obsolete.
Studies by scientists at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York have shown that endothelial cells – the cells that line the inside of blood vessels – can drive the regeneration of organ by releasing beneficial, organ-specific molecules. These organ-specific molecules were identified in a genome-wide screen that uncovered all the genes actively expressed in endothelial cells. Many of these genes found in this screen were previously not known to be expressed in endothelial cells. Researchers also found that organ dictate the structure and function of their own blood vessels and this includes the organ-specific repair molecules they elicit from endothelial cells.
Shahin Rafii, principal investigator of this work, is a professor of genetic medicine and co-director of the medical college’s Ansary Stem Cell Institute and the Tri-SCI Stem Center. Rafii is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
According to Rafii, when an organ in injured, its blood vessels may not have the ability to repair the organ on their own because of the damage to the blood vessels themselves, and the inflammation these same blood vessels might be experiencing.
“Our work suggests that an infusion of engineered endothelial cells could engraft into the injured tissue and acquire the capacity to repair the organ. These studies – along with the first molecule atlas of organ-specific blood vessel cells reported in the Developmental Cell paper (Developmental Cell 26, 204–219, July 29, 2013) – will open up a whole new chapter in translational vascular medicine and will have a major therapeutic application.”
Rafii continued: “Scientists had thought blood vessels in each organ are the same, that they exist to deliver oxygen and nutrients. But they are very different.” According to Rafii, different organs are endowed with blood vessels with unique shape and function and delegated with the difficult task of complying with the metabolic demands of that organ.
In one study from the Rafii lab, nine different tissues were examined, in addition to bone marrow and liver that had undergone a traumatic injury. To examine the blood vessels from each of these tissues, Rafii’s laboratory development a very efficient way to make endothelial cells from embryonic stem cells. Daniel Nolan, the lead author of this work, said that this protocol produced a “a pure population of endothelial cells in a very rapid time frame.”
From these laboratory-made endothelial cells (ECs), Rafii and his colleagues were able to take snapshots of all the genes expressed in various populations of ECs can compose the different vascular beds of the body. From these studies, Raffi and others discovered that ECs possess specific genes that code for unique growth factors, adhesion molecules, and factors regulating metabolism.
“We knew that these gene products were critical to the health of a particular tissue, but before our study it was not appreciated that these factors originate in the endothelial cells,” said Nolan.
Olivier Elemento, who performed much of the complex computational studies in this paper, noted, “We also found that the healing, or regeneration of tissue, in the liver and in the bone marrow were unexpectedly different – including the repair molecules, known as angiocrine growth factors, that were expressed by the endothelial cells.”
Blood vessels differ among the various organs because the ECs have to constantly adapt to the metabolic, biomechanical, inflammatory, and immunological needs of that particular organ, said Michael Ginsberg, a senior postdoctoral research associate in Rafii’s lab. “And we have now found how endothelial cells have learned to behave differently in each organ and to adjust to the needs of those organs,” he said.
This work from Raffii’s laboratory raises the question as to how ECs have the capacity to adapt to the biological demands of each organ. Is it possible to design “immature” ECs that could allow scientists to identify the means by which particular microenvironmental cues educate these cells to become more specialized endothelial cells?
To address this question, Rafii and his army of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, technicians, and visiting scientists made ECs from mouse embryonic stem cells and discovered that these cells were responsive to microenvironmental cues, and were also transplantable and functional.
Sina Rabbany, adjunct associate professor of genetic medicine and bioengineering at Weill Cornell Medical College said that embryonic stem cell derived ECs are “very versatile, so they can be transplanted into different tissues, become educated by the tissue, and acquire the characteristics of the native endothelial cells.” These ECs can also be grown in the lab into large numbers.
“We now know what it takes to keep these cells healthy, stable, and viable for transplantation,” said Rabbany.
When the ECs made by Rabbany were transplanted into the livers of laboratory mice, they integrated into the host tissue and become indistinguishable from the native tissue. Similar results were observed when these laboratory-derived ECs were transplanted into kidneys.