Jianjun Wang from Wayne State School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan and Xi-Yong Yu from Guangzhou Medical University and a host of graduate students and postdoctoral research fellows in their two laboratories have teamed up to make human cardiac progenitor cells (CPCs) from human skin fibroblasts through direct reprogramming. Direct reprogramming does not go through a pluripotent intermediate, and, therefore, produces cells that have a low chance of generating tumors.
To begin their study, Wang, and Yu and their colleagues isolated fibroblasts from the lower regions of the skin (dermis) and grew them in culture. Then they reprogrammed these cells in a relatively novel manner. This is a little complicated, but I will try to keep it simple.
Reprogramming cells usually requires scientists to infect cells with recombinant viruses that have been genetically engineered to express particular genes in cells or force cells to take up large foreign DNA. Both of these techniques can work relatively well in the laboratory, but you are left with cells that are filled with foreign DNA or recombinant viruses. It turns out that directly reprogramming cells only requires transient expression of specific genes, and once the cells have recommitted to a different cell fate, the expression of the genes used to get them there can be diminished.
To that end, some enterprising scientists have discovered that inducing cells to up modified proteins can also reprogram cells. Recently a new reagent called the QQ-reagent system can escort proteins across the cell membrane. The QQ-reagent has been patented and can sweep proteins into mammalian cells with high-efficiency and low toxicity (see Li Q, et al (2008) Methods Cell Biol 90:287–325).
Wang and Yu and their coworkers used genetically engineered bacteria to overexpress large quantities of four different proteins: Gata4, Hand2, Mef2c, and Tbx5. Then they mixed these proteins with their cultured human fibroblasts in the presence of the QQ reagent. This reagent drew the proteins into the cells and the fibroblasts were reprogrammed into cardiac progenitor cells (CPCs). Appropriate control experiments showed that cells that were treated with QQ reagent without these proteins were not reprogrammed. Wang and Yu and they research groups also exposed the cells to three growth factors, BMP4 and activin A, to drive the cells to become heart-specific cells, and basic fibroblast growth factor to turn the cells towards a progenitor cell fate.
The next set of experiment was intended to show that their newly reprogrammed were of a cardiac nature. First, the cells clearly expressed heart-specific genes. Flk-1 and Isl-1 are genes that earmark cardiac progenitor cells, and by the eighth day of induction, the vast majority of cells expressed both these genes.
Second, cardiac cells can differentiate into three different cell types: heart muscle cells, blood vessels cells, and smooth muscle cells that surround the blood vessels. In mesoderm progenitors made from embryonic stem cells, inhibition of the Wnt signaling pathway can drive such cells to become heart muscle cells (see Chen, et al Nat Chem Biol 5:100–107; Willems E, et al Circ Res 109:360–364; Hudson J, et al Stem Cells Dev 21:1513–1523). However, Wang, Yu and company showed that treating the cells with a small molecule called IWR-1 that inhibits Wnt signaling drove their cells to differentiate into, not only heart muscle cells, but also endothelial (blood vessel) cells and smooth muscle cells when the cells were grown on gelatin coated dishes. When left to differentiate in culture, the cells beat synchronously and released calcium in a wave-like fashion that spread from one cell to another, suggesting that some cells were acting as pacemakers and setting the beat.
Then these cells were transplanted into the heart of mice that had suffered heart attacks. When compared to control hearts that received fluid, but no cells, the hearts of the animals that received protein-induced CPCs showed decreased scarring by 4 weeks after the transplantations. They also showed the growth of new heart muscle. A variety of staining experiments established that the engrafted protein-induced CPCs positive for heart muscle- and endothelial-specific cell markers. These experiments showed that transplantation of cardiac progenitor cells can not only help attenuate remodeling of the left ventricular after a heart attack, but that the protein-induced CPCs (piCPCs) can develop into cells of the cardiac lineage.
These are exciting results. It shows that direct reprogramming can occur without introducing genes into cells by means that can complicate the safety of the implanted cells. Also, because the cells are differentiated into progenitor cells, they still have the ability to proliferate and expand their numbers, which is essential for proper regeneration of a damaged tissue.
After a heart attack, the ventricle wall scars over and can become thin. However, piCPCs that have been directly reprogrammed from mature, adult cells can be used to replace dead heart muscle in a living animal.
Despite these exciting advances, further questions remain. For example, are the physiological properties of cells made from piCPCs similar enough to match the functional parameters of the heart into which they are inserting themselves? More work is necessary to answer that question. Functional equivalence is important, since a heart that does not function similarly from one end to the other can become arrhythmic, which is clinically dangerous. Further work is also required to precisely determine how well cells derived from piCPCs mature and coupling with neighboring cells. Therefore, larger animal studies and further studies in culture dishes will be necessary before this technique can come to the clinic. Nevertheless, this is a tremendous start to what will hopefully be a powerful and fruitful technique for healing damaged hearts.