A Way to Get Stem Cells to Make Living Heart Valve Tissue?

What a benefit it would be to be able to replace diseased and defective heart valves with new heart valves. Thus, living tissue engineered heart valves (TEHV) would be a boon to children who require replacement heart valves that have the capacity to grow with the child and completely integrate into the child’s heart tissue. A persistent challenge for TEHV is accessible human cell source(s) that have the ability to mimic native valve cell phenotypes and possess matrix remodeling characteristics that are essential for long-term function.

Mesenchymal stem cells derived from bone marrow (BMMSC) or adipose tissue (ADMSC) are intriguing cell sources for TEHV. Unfortunately, they have not been compared to pediatric human aortic valve interstitial cells (pHAVIC) in relevant 3-dimensional culture environments.

In a recent study, Bin Duan from the Biomedical Engineering department at Cornell University compared the spontaneous and induced multipotency of ADMSC and BMMSC to that of pHAVIC using different induction culture systems within three-dimensional (3D) bioactive hybrid hydrogels that have similar material properties to those of aortic heart valve leaflets. pHAVICs possessed some multi-lineage differentiation capacity in response to induction media, but these cells were limited to the earliest stages and their differentiation capacity were less potent than either ADMSCs or BMMSCs. ADMSCs expressed cell phenotype markers that were similar to pHAVICs when they were grown in HAVIC growth media spiked with a growth factor called basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF). BMMSCs generally expressed extra cellular matrix remodeling characteristics similar to pHAVICs.

Duan and his colleagues then chemically attached bFGF to components of the 3D hybrid hydrogels in order to further immobilize them. The immobilized bFGF upregulated vimentin expression and promoted the fibroblastic differentiation of pHAVIC, ADMSC and BMMSC. Since fibroblasts help make heart valves, these changes in gene expression might presage the ability of these cells to form new heart living heart valve tissue.

Thus, these findings show that even though mesenchymal stem cells retain a heightened capacity to form bone in 3D culture, this tendency can be shifted fibroblast cell fates by tethering bFGF to the 3-D matrix. Such a strategy is probably rather important for utilizing stem cell sources in heart valve tissue engineering applications.

This is an important finding.  Even though the production of TEHVs are some ways off, Duan’s findings might provide a strategy to begin cells on the path to making TEHVs.


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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).