Pretreatment of Mesenchymal Stem Cells with Melatonin Improves Their Healing Properties in Animals with Strokes

The transplantation of mesenchymal stem cells or MSCs as they as affectionately known, does indeed benefit patients who have had a stroke. Unfortunately, the benefits of MSC transplantation if is limited by inability of these cells to survive after they are implanted into a low-oxygen environment. When a person suffers from a stroke, a blood vessel that feeds the brain has been blocked, and this blockage results in the death of particular cells in the brain. The affected areas of the brain, however, have been deprived of oxygen, and the transplantation of new cells into these areas can result in the prompt death of the implanted cells.

Fortunately, previous studies have revealed that pretreatment of the implanted cells with the hormone melatonin can increase the survival of MSCs that were implanted into kidneys that suffered oxygen deprivation. Therefore, could melatonin pretreatment also improve MSC survival in the case of strokes?

A new study by Guo-Yuan Yang and his colleagues at the Med-X Research Institute in Shanghai, China has examined the effects of melatonin pretreatment on the survival of MSCs that were implanted into the brains of laboratory animals that suffered a stroke.

In a nutshell, Yang and his colleagues showed that melatonin pretreatment greatly increased survival of cultured MSCs when these cells were subjected to low-oxygen conditions. Then when they went whole hog and transplanted their melatonin-pretreated MSCs into the brains of animals that had suffered a stroke, they once again observed that these cells survived at a substantially higher rate than their untreated counterparts. Melatonin-pretreated MSCs also further reduced bleeds into the brain (infarction) and improved the behavioral outcomes of the laboratory animals.

When Yang’s group examined the molecules secreted by the melatonin-treated MSCs, they discovered that the melatonin-pretreated MSCs made a lot more blood-vessel-promoting proteins (such as vascular endothelial growth factor or VEGF), and nerve cell-promoting molecules. Not surprisingly, the rats implanted with melatonin-pretreated MSCs shows significantly more new blood vessels formed, new neurons formed, and better looking brains in general.

Melatonin treatment increased the levels of two signaling molecules, p-ERK1/2, in MSCs. These particular signaling molecules are linked to higher survival rates. When Yang and his crew blocked melatonin signaling by treating cells with as drug called luzindole, these positive effects were reversed and when another drug called U0126, which prevents ERK from becoming phosphorylated was also applied to the cells, it completely reversed the protective effects of melatonin.

These results show that melatonin improves MSC survival and function. Furthermore, melatonin does this by activating the ERK1/2 signaling pathway. Therefore, mesenchymal cells pretreated by melatonin may represent a viable approach to enhance the beneficial effects of stem cell therapy for strokes, and maybe other conditions too? Well shall see. Stay tuned…..


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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).