Priming Cocktail for Cardiac Stem Cell Grafts

Approximately 700,000 Americans suffer a heart attack every year and stem cells have the potential to heal the damage wrought by a heart attack. Stem cells therapy has tried to take stem cells cultured in the laboratory and apply them to damaged tissues.

In the case of the heart, transplanted stem cells do not always integrate into the heart tissue. In the words of Jeffrey Spees, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Vermont, “many grafts simply didn’t take. The cells would stick or would die.”

To solve this problem, Spees and his colleagues examined ways to increase the efficiency of stem cell engraftment. In his experiments, Spees and others used mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow. Mesenchymal stem cells are also called stromal cells because they help compose the spider web-like filigree within the bone marrow known as “stroma.” Even though the stroma does not make blood cells, it supports the hematopoietic stem cells that do make all blood cells.  Here is a picture of bone marrow stroma to give you an idea of what it looks like:

Immunohistochemistry-Paraffin: Bone marrow stromal cell antigen 1 Antibody [NBP2-14363] Staining of human smooth muscle shows moderate cytoplasmic positivity in smooth muscle cells.
Immunohistochemistry-Paraffin: Bone marrow stromal cell antigen 1 Antibody [NBP2-14363] Staining of human smooth muscle shows moderate cytoplasmic positivity in smooth muscle cells.
Stromal cells are known to secrete a host of molecules that protect injured tissue, promote tissue repair, and support the growth and proliferation of stem cells.

Spees suspected that some of the molecules made by bone marrow stromal cells could enhance the engraftment of stem cells patches in the heart. To test this idea, Spees and others isolated proteins from the culture medium of bone marrow stem cells grown in the laboratory and tested their ability to improve the survival and tissue integration of stem cell patches in the heart.

Spees tenacity paid off when he and his team discovered that a protein called “Connective tissue growth factor” or CTGF plus the hormone insulin were in the culture medium of these stem cells. Furthermore, when this culture medium was injected into the heart prior to treating them with stem cells, the stem cell patches engrafted at a higher rate.

“We broke the record for engraftment,” said Spees. Spees and his co-workers called their culture medium from the bone marrow stem cells “Cell-Kro.” Cell-Kro significantly increases cell adhesion, proliferation, survival, and migration.

Spees is convinced that the presence of CTGF and insulin in Cell-Kro have something to do with its ability to enhance stem cell engraftment. “Both CTGF and insulin are protective,” said Spees. “Together they have a synergistic effect.”

Spees is continuing to examine Cell-Kro in rats, but he wants to take his work into human trials next. His goal is to use cardiac stem cells (CSCs) from humans, which already have a documented ability to heal the heart after a heart attack. See here, here, and here.

“There are about 650,000 bypass surgeries annually,” said Spees. “These patients could have cells harvested at their first surgery and banked for future application. If they return for another procedure, they could then receive a graft of their own cardiac progenitor cells, primed in Cell-Kro, and potentially re-build part of their injured heart.”


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).