Thymosin beta4 is a very highly conserved 43-amino acid peptide that plays a very important role in cell proliferation, migration, and angiogenesis (blood vessel production). Experiments with thymosin beta4 in laboratory animals that have had a heart attack have shown that treatment with thymosin beta4 can reduce cell death in the heart and reduce the size of the infarct, while increasing heart function (see Hannappel E, et al., Arch Biochem Biophys 240 (1985): 236-241; Bock-Marquette, et al., Nature 432 (2007): 466-472; Srivastava D, et al., Ann NY Acad Sci 1112 (2007): 161-170; Grant DS et al., Angiogenesis 3 (1999): 125-135). Also, knocking down thymosin beta4 in endothelial progenitor cells (cells that make blood vessels) prevents these cells from healing the heart after a heart attack (Hinkel, et al., Circulation 117 (2008): 2232-2240).
Given the ability of thymosin beta4 to heal the heart, Dinender Singla and colleagues at the University of Central Florida have engineered embryonic stem cells to express thymosin beta4 and used them to treat laboratory animals that have suffered a heart attack. The results were truly tremendous.
Singla and his team genetically engineered mouse embryonic stem cells to express either red fluorescent protein or red fluorescent protein and thymosin beta4. In culture, those cells that expressed thymosin beta4 showed much more efficient differentiation into heart muscle cells (3-5 times greater).
Next, they gave laboratory mice heart attacks and implanted these cells into the heart. Those mice that received no cells had bucket loads of cell death. Those mice who received embryonic stem cells that did not express thymosin beta4 showed a decrease in cell death 2 weeks after the heart attack. However those mice that received the embryonic stem cells that expressed thymosin beta4 showed a third of the cell death found in the control mice. The same applied to the amount of scarring in the hearts. Animals treated with embryonic stem cells (ESCs) that did not express thymosin beta4 had about half the scarring of the control mice that received no cells, but the hearts treated with thymosin beta4-expressing ESCs showed about a third of the scarring.
When it came to heart function, things were really remarkable. The ESC-treated hearts showed definite improvement over the control animals, but the ESC-thymosin beta4 cells restored heart function so that the hearts worked almost as well as the sham hearts that were never given a heart attack. The fractional shortening was not as high, nor was the end diastolic volume as low, but most of the other functional parameters were close to the sham hearts.
Mechanistically, the thymosin beta4 appears to down-regulate PTEN and upregulated the AKT kinase. AKT kinase activation is associated with cell survival and growth. PTEN tends to slow down growth and prevent healing under some conditions.
This suggests that thymosin beta4 expression seems to augment healing in the heart after a heart attack. Such a therapy could potentially be used to treat heart attack patients, however, more animal experiments will need to be done. What is the proper time frame for thymosin beta4 treatment? How many cells should be implanted in order to provide the maximum therapeutic effect. Can such a treatment be provided via intracoronary delivery? Can conditional expression provide a robust enough response to heal the heart? Can other cells, like mesenchymal stem cells to used to deliver the thymosin beta4? Can c-kit cardiac progenitor cells be used to deliver thymosin beta4?
Many questions remain, but hopefully, this remarkable treatment regime can be ramped up to eventually go to clinical trials.