Umbilical Cord Blood Contains c-kit+ Cells that Can Differentiate into Heart-like Cells

Bone contains a wide variety of stem cells whose potential are only beginning to be tapped. One cell population possesses a cell surface protein called c-kit, and these c-kit+ progenitor cells seem to support myocardial regeneration. Do c-kit+ cells from umbilical cord blood have the same capacity?

Luciana Teofili from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome, Italy and her colleagues purified c-kit+ cells from umbilical cord blood by means of magnetic beads that were coated with c-kit-binding antibodies. Teofili and others induced heart muscle differentiation in these cells with several different protocols. Then the expression of cardiac markers (GATA4, GATA6, β-myosin heavy chain, α-sarcomeric actin and cardiac Troponin T) was investigated, and whole-cell current and voltage-clamp recordings were performed.

The c-kit+ cells from umbilical cord blood showed a rather immature gene profile, and by themselves, they did not differentiate into heart muscle-like cells in culture. In contrast, if whole mononuclear cells from umbilical cord blood were subjected to the same treatment, several if the employed protocols produced large, adherent cells that expressed several heart muscle-specific genes and exhibited an excitability much like that of heart muscle cells.

Formation of these heart muscle-like cells was prevented if the c-kit+ cells were removed from the other cells. Tracking studies showed that the c-kit+ cells were the ones that differentiated into heart muscle-like cells, but they only did so when they were together with c-kit– cells.

Thus umbilical cord blood contains progenitors endowed with the ability to differentiate into heart muscle-like cells. The cells with this potential reside in the c-kit+ fraction but they require the presence of abundant accessory cells to differentiate properly.

These preliminary observations suggest that it is a good idea to consider the storage of the umbilical cord blood of patients with prenatal diagnosis of congenital heart diseases. Such conditions might be potentially amenable to myocardial regenerative therapies with umbilical blood-based stem cells.

This paper was published in the journal Cytotherapy, but it must be said that the evidence that these cells differentiated into heart muscle cells was not completely convincing.