Mesenchymal Precursor Cells Reduce Cardiac Scar in Heart Failure Patients


Heart failure is a life-limiting condition that affects over 40 million patients worldwide. Fortunately, people who suffer from heart disease now may have new hope. A new study suggests that damaged tissue can be regenerated by means of a stem cell treatment that was injected into the heart during surgery.

This small-scale study was published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Translational Research. It treated and then followed 11 patients who, during coronary artery bypass graft surgery, had stem cells directly injected into their heart muscle near the site of the tissue scars that had resulted from previous heart attacks.

The most common cause of heart failure is “Ischemic cardiomyopathy” or ICM. ICM occurs when the heart has enlarged to such a degree that the vasculature can no longer supply the heart with adequate blood. ICM can also result from multiple sites of blockage in the coronary arteries of the heart that prevent adequate circulation in the heart.

In this study, researchers delivered a novel stem cell mesenchymal precursor cell type (iMP) during coronary artery bypass surgery (CABG) in patients with ICM whose ejection fractions were below 40%. The iMP cells are derived from what seem to be very young mesenchymal stem cells that lack the typical cell-surface proteins of mesenchymal stem cells. The cells have the ability to form a variety of mesodermal-derived tissues. Also, these cells suppress immunological rejection by the patient’s body, and therefore, they can be implanted into a patient’s body, even though their tissue types do not match. Therefore, these cells can not only be expanded in culture, but can also potentially differentiate into heart-based cell types, including heart muscle and blood vessels.

This study was a phase IIa safety study that was NOT placebo-controlled, double-blinded. It enrolled 11 patients, all of whom underwent scintigraphy imaging (SPECT) before their surgery. SPECT is an effect means to detect “hibernating myocardium” that does not properly contract. Hibernating myocardium is not suitable for iMP implantation.

During the CABG surgery, iMP cells were implanted in the heart muscle (intramyocardially). Stem cells were injected into predefined areas that were viable and close to infarct areas that usually showed poor vascularization. Such areas, because of their poor vascularization could not be treated with grafting because of their poor target vessel quality.

After surgery, SPECT imaging was used to identify changes in scar area. Fortunately, Intramyocardial implantation of iMP cells with CABG was safe. The huge surprise came with the reduction of the heart scar. Subjects showed a 40% reduction in the size of scarred tissue. Remember that heart scars form after a heart attack, and can increase the chances of further heart failure. This scarring, however, was previously thought to be permanent and irreversible. The patients also showed improved myocardial contractility and perfusion of nonrevascularized areas of the heart in addition to significant reduction in left ventricular scar area at 12 months after treatment.

“Quite frankly it was a big surprise to find the area of scar in the damaged heart got smaller,” said Prof Stephen Westaby from John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, who undertook the research at AHEPA university hospital in Thessaloniki, Greece, with Kryiakos Anastasiadis and Polychronis Antonitsis.

Clinical improvement was correlated with significant improvements in quality of life at 6 months after the treatment all patients.

Jeremy Pearson, the associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said: “This very small study suggests that targeted injection into the heart of carefully prepared cells from a healthy donor during bypass surgery, is safe. It is difficult to be sure that the cells had a beneficial effect because all patients were undergoing bypass surgery at the same time, which would usually improve heart function.

“A controlled trial with substantially more patients is needed to determine whether injection of these types of cells proves any more effective than previous attempts to improve heart function in this way, which have so far largely failed.”

Dr. Westaby noted that improvements in the health of their patients were partly a result of the heart bypass surgery. However, he added that the next study would include a control group who will undergo CABG but not receive stem cell treatment, in order to measure exactly what impact the treatment has.

“These patients came out of heart failure partly due to the bypass grafts of course, but we think it was partly due to the fact that they had a smaller area of scar [as a result of the stem cell treatment]. Certainly this finding of scar being reduced is quite fascinating,” he said.

These results suggest that the delivery of iMP cells can induce regeneration of heart muscle and other heart tissues in patients with ischemic heart failure.

This paper was published: Anastasiadis, K., Antonitsis, P., Westaby, S. et al. J. of Cardiovasc. Trans. Res. (2016) 9: 202. doi:10.1007/s12265-016-9686-0.

Gamida Cell Announces First Patient with Sickle Cell Disease Transplanted in Phase 1/2 Study of CordIn™ as the Sole Graft Source


An Israeli regenerative therapy company called Gamida Cell specializes in cellular and immune therapies to treat cancer and rare (“orphan”) genetic diseases. Gamida Cell’s main product is called NiCord, which provides patients who need new blood-making stem cells in their bone marrow an alternative to a bone marrow transplant. NiCord is umbilical cord blood that has been expanded in culture. In clinical trials to date, NiCord has rapidly engrafted into patients and the clinical outcomes of NiCord transplantation seem to be comparable to transplantation of peripheral blood.

Gamida Cell’s two products, NiCord and CordIn, as well as some other products under development utilize the company’s proprietary NAM platform technology to expand umbilical cord cells. The NAM platform technology has the remarkable capacity to preserve and enhance the functionality of hematopoietic stem cells from umbilical cord blood. CordIn is an experimental therapy for those rare non-malignant diseases in which bone marrow transplantation is the only currently available cure.

Gamida Cell has recently announced that the first patient with sickle cell disease (SCD) has been transplanted with their CordIn product.  Mark Walters, MD, Director of the Blood and Marrow Transplantation (BMT) Program is the Principal Investigator of this clinical trial. The patient received their transplant at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland.

CordIn, as previously mentioned, is an experimental therapy for rare non-malignant diseases, including hemoglobinopathies such as Sickel Cell Disease and thalassemia, bone marrow failure syndromes such as aplastic anemia, genetic metabolic diseases and refractory autoimmune diseases. CordIn potentially addresses a presently unmet medical need.

“The successful enrollment and transplantation of our first SCD patient with CordIn as a single graft marks an important milestone in our clinical development program. We are eager to demonstrate the potential of CordIn as a transplantation solution to cure SCD and to broaden accessibility to patients with rare genetic diseases in need of bone marrow transplantation,” said Gamida Cell CEO Dr. Yael Margolin. “In the first Phase 1/2 study with SCD, the expanded graft was transplanted along with a non-manipulated umbilical cord blood unit in a double graft configuration. In the second phase 1/2 study we updated the protocol from our first Phase 1/2 study so that patients would be transplanted with CordIn as a standalone graft, which is expanded from one full umbilical cord blood unit and enriched with stem cells using the company’s proprietary NAM technology.”

Somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 patients in the U.S suffer from SCD; and around 200,000 patients suffer from thalassemia, globally. The financial burden of treating these patients over their lifetime is estimated at $8-9M. Bone marrow transplantation is the only clinically established cure for SCD, but only a few hundred SCD patients have actually received a bone marrow transplant in the last ten years, since most patients were not successful in finding a suitable match. Unrelated cord blood could be available for most of the patients eligible for transplantation, but, unfortunately, the rate of successful engraftment of un-expanded cord blood in these patients is low. Therefore, cord blood is usually not considered for SCD patients. Without a transplant, these patients suffer from very high morbidity and low quality of life.

Eight patients with SCD were transplanted in the first Phase 1/2 study performed in a double graft configuration. This study is still ongoing. Preliminary data from the first study will be summarized and published later this year. A Phase 1/2 of CordIn for the treatment of patients with aplastic anemia will commence later this year.

NurOwn, Modified Mesenchymal Stem Cells, Show Clinical Benefit in Phase 2 Trial in ALS Patients


BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics Inc. (BCLI) has developed a cell-based product they call “NurOwn.” NurOwn consists of mesenchymal stem cells that have been cultured to secrete a variety of neurotrophic factors (NTFs). These NTFs are a collection of different growth factors that promote the survival of neurons. NurOwn cells were originally developed in the laboratories of Professor Dani Offen and the late Professor Eldad Melamed, at Tel Aviv University. NurOwn cells have been studied extensively and they clearly have the capacity to migrate to damaged areas in the central nervous system (Sadan O, et al., Stem Cells. 2008 Oct;26(10):2542-51), decrease dopamine depletion in a Parkinson’s disease model system (Barhum Y, et al., J Mol Neurosci. 2010 May;41(1):129-37), can promote the survival of photoreceptors in the retina of animals who optic nerves were damaged (Levkovitch-Verbin H, et al., Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2010 Dec;51(12):6394-400), decrease quinolinic acid toxicity in an animal model of Huntington’s disease (Sadan O, et al., Exp Neurol. 2012 Apr;234(2):417-27), and improve motor function and survival in a genetic model of Huntington’s disease.

On the strength of these experiments, NurOwn cells have also been tested in clinical trials. Because NTF-secreting MSCs (or, MSC-NTF cells) are designed specifically to treat neurodegenerative diseases, most of the clinical trials, to date, have examined of safety and efficacy of MSC-NTFs in patients with neurological disorders. The safety of NurOwn cells was established in a small phase I/II trial with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients. This was a small study (12 patients), but showed that, at least in this patients population, intrathecal (injected into the central nervous system) and intramuscular administration of MSC-NTF cells in ALS patients with is safe and patients even showed some indications of clinical benefits, but the study was too small to be definitive about the efficacy of these cells.

Now a recently completed randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 2 study of NurOwn in ALS patients has found that NurOwn is safe and well tolerated and may also confer clinical benefits upon ALS patients.

According to BrainStorm, this phase 2 study achieved its primary objective (safety and tolerability). No deaths were reported in the study and no patients discontinued participation because of an adverse event. All patients in both active treatment and placebo groups experienced at least one treatment-emergent adverse event that tended to be mild-to-moderate in intensity in both groups. Treatment-related adverse events, as determined by a blinded investigator, occurred slightly more frequently in active-treated patients than in placebo-treated patients (97.2 percent vs. 75.0 percent). The largest differences in frequencies were for the localized reactions of injection site pain and back pain, and fever, headache, and joint pain.

However, NurOwn also achieved multiple secondary efficacy endpoints in this trial. NurOwn showed clear evidence of a clinically significant benefit. Most significantly, the response rates were higher for NurOwn-treated subjects compared to placebo at all time points in the 24 weeks during which when the study was conducted.

This clinical trial conducted at three sites in the U.S: Massachusetts General Hospital, UMass Medical School and the Mayo Clinic. 48 patients were randomized to receive NurOwn cells administered via combined intramuscular and intrathecal injection (n= 36), or placebo (n=12). They were followed monthly for approximately three months before treatment and six months following treatment, and were assessed at 2, 4, 8, 12, 16 and 24 weeks.

The primary investigator in this trial, Robert H. Brown of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and Medical School said, “These exciting findings clearly indicate that it is appropriate to conduct a longer study with repetitive dosing.”

Subjects treated with NurOwn in this trial showed slowing of progression of ALS and no safety concerns. NurOwn-treated patients also displayed increased levels of growth factors in the cerebrospinal fluid and decreased signs of inflammation after two weeks. These are good indicators that the MSC-NTF cells are orchestrating some kind of beneficial biological effect.

Based on these results, new trials are warranted that will examine repeat dosing at 8 to 12 weeks and employ a larger number of subjects.

LIF Increases Muscle Satellite Expansion in Culture and Transplantation Efficiency


Transplantation of satellite stem cells, which are found in skeletal muscles, might potentially treat degenerative muscle diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy. However, muscle satellite cells have an unfortunate tendency to lose their ability to be transplanted then they are grown in culture.

In order to generate enough cells for transplantation, the cells are isolated from the body and then they must be grown in culture. However, in order to properly grow in culture, the cells must be prevented from differentiating because fully differentiated cells stop growing and die soon after transplantation. Several growth factors, cytokines, and chemicals have been used in muscle satellite cell culture systems. Unfortunately, the optimal culture conditions required to maintain the undifferentiated state, inhibit differentiation, and enhance eventual transplantation efficiency have not yet been established satisfactorily.

Because it is impossible to extract enough satellite cells for therapeutic purposed from biopsies, these cells must be expanded in culture. However this very act of culturing satellite cells renders them inefficient for clinical purposes. How can we break away from this clinical catch-22?

Shin’ichi Takeda from the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry and his colleagues have used growth factors to maintain muscle satellite cell efficiency during cell culture. In particular, Takeda and others used a growth factor called leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF). LIF effectively maintains the undifferentiated state of the satellite cells and enhances their expansion and transplantation efficiency. LIF is also thought to be involved in muscle regeneration.

This is the first study on the effect of LIF on the transplantation efficiency of primary satellite cells,” said Shin’ichi Takeda of the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry. “This research enables us to get one step closer to the optimal culture conditions for muscle stem cells.”

The precise mechanisms by which LIF enhances transplantation efficiency remain unknown. Present work is trying to determine the downstream targets of LIF. Identifying the precise mechanisms by which LIF enhances satellite cell transplantation efficiency would help to clarify the functional importance of LIF in muscle regeneration, and, even more importantly, further its potential application in cell transplantation therapy.

The reference for this paper is: N. Ito et al., “Enhancement of Satellite Cell Transplantation Efficiency by Leukemia Inhibitory Factor,” Journal of Neuromuscular Diseases, 2016; 3 (2): 201. DOI: 10.3233/JND-160156.

Umbilical Cord Blood Mesenchymal Stem Cells do Not Cause Tumors in Rigorous Tests


Human umbilical cord blood mesenchymal stem cells (hUCB-MSCs) have the ability to self-renew and also can differentiate into a wide range of cell types. However, many clinicians and scientists fear that even these very useful cells might cause tumors.

To that end, Moon and colleagues from the Korean Institute of Toxicology have rigorously tested the tendency for hUBC-MSCs to cause tumors. They used a large battery of tests in living organisms and in culture. hUCB-MSCs were compared to MRC-5 and HeLa cells. MRC-5 cells are known to have no ability to cause tumors and HeLa cells have a robust ability to form tumors, and therefore, constitute negative and positive controls,

To evaluate the ability of cells to cause tumors, Moon and others examined the tendency of these cells to grow without being attached to a substratum. This is a hallmark of tumor cells and is called “anchorage-independent growth” (AIG). To assess AIG, the cells were grown in soft agar, which is a standard assay for AIG. hUCB-MSCs and MRC-5 cells formed few colonies in soft agar, but HeLa cells formed a greater number of larger colonies. This indicated that hUCB-MSCs and MRC-5 cells do not show AIG, a common trait of tumorigenic cells.

The next assay implanted these cells into live laboratory animals. hUCB-MSCs were implanted as a underneath the skin of BALB/c-nu mice (nasty creatures – they bite). All the mice implanted with hUCB-MSCs and NRC-5 cells showed any sign of tumors. Both gross and microscopic examination failed reveal any tumors. However, all mice transplanted with HeLa cells developed tumors that were clearly derived from the implanted cells.

These experiments, though somewhat mundane, rigorously demonstrate that hUCB-MSCs do not exhibit tumorigenic potential. This provides further evidence of these cells clinical applications.

The paper appeared in Toxicol Res. 2016 Jul;32(3):251-8. doi: 10.5487/TR.2016.32.3.251.

German Group Uses Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells to Model Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease


A German research group has used pluripotent stem cells to design a new in vitro model system for investigating nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).  NAFLD, or steatosis, is a liver disease whose prevalence is probably much higher than estimated, and the new cases of it are increasing every year throughout the world.  NAFLD is typically associated with obesity and type-2 diabetes.  An estimated one-third of the general population of Western countries is thought to be affected with NAFLD, with or without symptoms.  It usually results from a high caloric diet in combination with a lack of exercise.  The liver begins to accumulate fat as lipid droplets.  Initially, this is a benign state, but it can develop into nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (also known as NASH), an inflammatory disease of the liver.  Then many patients develop fibrosis, cirrhosis or even liver cancer.  However, in many cases patients die of heart failure before they develop severe liver damage.

A major obstacle that dogged NAFLD research was that biopsies of patients and healthy individuals were required.  Researchers from the Institute for Stem Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine at the University Clinic of Düsseldorf, Germany solved this problem by reprogramming skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that they differentiated into hepatocyte-like cells.

“Although our hepatocyte-like cells are not fully mature, they are already an excellent model system for the analysis of such a complex disease”, said Nina Graffmann, first author of the paper that appeared in the journal Stem Cells and Development.

The researchers recapitulated important steps of the disease in cultured cells.  They demonstrated up-regulation of PLIN2, a protein called perilipin that surrounds lipid droplets. Mice without PLIN2 do not become obese, even when overfed with a high fat diet.  Also the key role of PPARα, a transcription factor involved in controlling glucose and lipid metabolism, was reproduced in the tissue culture system.  “In our system, we can efficiently induce lipid storage in hepatocyte-like cells and manipulate associated proteins or microRNAs by adding various factors into the culture.  Thus, our in vitro model offers the opportunity to analyse drugs which might reduce the stored fat in hepatocytes,” Graffmann said.

Senior author James Adjaye and his colleagues hope to expand their model by deriving iPSCs from NAFLD patients.  They hope to discover differences that might explain the course of NAFLD.

“Using as reference the data and biomarkers obtained from our initial analyses on patient liver biopsies and matching serum samples, we hope to better understand the etiology of NAFLD and the development of NASH at the level of the individual, with the ultimate aim of developing targeted therapy options,” said Adjayer.

This paper can be found at Nina Graffmann et al., “Modeling NAFLD with human pluripotent stem cell derived immature hepatocyte like cells reveals activation of PLIN2 and confirms regulatory functions of PPARα,”Stem Cells and Development, 2016; DOI: 10.1089/scd.2015.0383.

A New Tool for Gene Editing In Stem Cells Can Drive Changes in Cell Fate Without Causing Mutations


Recently, a new tool is now available to control gene expression in order to understand gene function and manipulate cell fate. This new tool is called CRIPSR/Cas9, which is a gene-editing tool that employs a genetic system that naturally occurs in bacteria, who use it as a protection against viruses. CRISPR/Cas9 allows scientists to precisely add, remove or replace specific sequences of DNA. It is the most efficient, inexpensive and easiest gene editing tool available to date.

Several laboratories have tried to use CRISPR/Cas9 to activate genes in cells, but such an effort has not always succeeded. However a research team at Hokkaido University’s Institute of Genetic Medicine has developed a powerful new method that uses CRISPR/Cas9 to do exactly that.

In cells, genes have an expression switch called “promoters.” Genes are switched off, or silenced, when their promoters are methylated, which means that islands of C-G bases have a methyl group (a –CH3 group) attached to the cytosine base. The Hokkaido University team wanted to turn an inactivated gene on. The ingeniously combined a DNA repair mechanism, called MMEJ (microhomology-mediated end-joining), with CRISPR/Cas9 to do this. They excised a methylated promoter using CRISPR/Cas9 and then used MMEJ to insert an unmethylated promoter. Thus, they replaced the off-switch signal with an on-switch signal.

DNA Methylation

The gene that was activated was the neural cell gene OLIG2 and the embryonic stem cell gene NANOG in order to test the efficiency of this technology in cultured cells. Within five days, they found evidence that the genes were robustly expressed. When they activated the OLIG2 gene in cultured human stem cells, the cells differentiated to neurons in seven days with high-efficiency.

Toru Kondo and his colleagues also discovered that their editing tool could be used to activate other silenced promoters. They also found that their system didn’t cause unwanted mutations in other non-target genes in the cells. According to Kondo, this gene editing tool has wide potential to manipulate gene expression, create genetic circuits, or to engineer cell fates.

See Shota Katayama et al., “A Powerful CRISPR/Cas9-Based Method for Targeted Transcriptional Activation,” Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2016; 55(22): 6452 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201601708.

Using Small Molecules to Covert Donated Stomach Cells into Stem Cells that Can Cure Liver Disease


A collaboration between Yunfang Wang from the Tissue Engineering Lab at the Beijing Institute of Transfusion Medicine in Beijing, China and Xuetao Pei, from the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Lab, also at the Beijing Institute of Transfusion Medicine has produced a remarkable result.

Wang and Pei and their colleagues have used small molecules to convert human gastric epithelial cells into endodermal progenitors.  Endodermal stem/progenitor cells have diverse potential applications in research and regenerative medicine.  They can differentiate into just about any cell type in the gastrointestinal tract, including liver cells, and pancreatic cells.  Thus these cells may have a variety of uses in research, and perhaps even in the clinic.

In this experiment, gastric epithelial cells were isolated from human donors and cultured in the presence of a carpet of tissue-specific mesenchymal cells as support cells to help the gastric epithelial cells survive in primary culture.  These cells were then treated with a cocktail of small molecules that drove the cells to dedifferentiate into induced endodermal progenitor cells (hiEndoPCs). These cells can grow in culture, expand rapidly and express a variety of stem cell markers.

In culture, the hiEndoPCs were able to differentiate into liver cells (hepatocytes, pancreatic endocrine cells, and intestinal epithelial cells.  The differentiation protocols used in this paper all involved the use of small molecules – no genetic engineering of the cells was necessary.

Small molceules that convert gastric epithelial cells into hiEndoPCs

Then liver cells made from hiEndoPCs were transplanted into mice that had messed up livers (Fah -/- Rag2-/-).  Fah-mutant mice lack the enzyme fumarylacetoacetate hydrolase, and without this enzyme, the liver is incapable to processing toxic ammonium, which builds up in the liver and kills it.  Rag2 mutations prevent the mouse from rejecting implanted livers cells.  In these experiments, transplanted hepatocytes rescued liver failure in these mice.  hiEndoPCs had the added advantage of no causing teratomas, like embryonic stem cells.

Human gastric epithelial cells are easily isolated from human donors without causing harm to the donor.  They can be isolated from patients of a variety of ages and this strategy can easily convert those cells into a cell population that is readily expandable and can be personalized into cells from treating patients with abnormal livers, pancreases, or intestinal tracts.  This fascinating proof-of-principle paper brings such personalized medicine one step closer.

The article was published in Cell Stem Cells 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.stem.2016.06.006. 


Genetic Switch to Making More Blood-Making Stem Cells Found


A coalition of stem cell scientists, co-led in Canada by Dr. John Dick, Senior Scientist, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, University Health Network (UHN) and Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto, and in the Netherlands by Dr. Gerald de Haan, Scientific Co-Director, European Institute for the Biology of Ageing, University Medical Centre Groningen, the Netherlands, have uncovered a genetic switch that can potentially increase the supply of stem cells for cancer patients who need transplantation therapy to fight their disease.

Their findings were published in the journal Cell Stem Cell and constitute proof-of-concept experiments that may provide a viable new approach to making more stem cells from umbilical cord blood.

“Stem cells are rare in cord blood and often there are not enough present in a typical collection to be useful for human transplantation. The goal is to find ways to make more of them and enable more patients to make use of blood stem cell therapy,” says Dr. Dick. “Our discovery shows a method that could be harnessed over the long-term into a clinical therapy and we could take advantage of cord blood being collected in various public banks that are now growing across the country.”

Currently, all patients who require stem cell transplants must be matched to an adult donor. The donor and the recipient must share a common set of cell surface proteins called “human leukocyte antigens” HLAs. HLAs are found on the surfaces of all nucleated cells in our bodies and these proteins are encoded by a cluster of genes called the “Major Histocompatibility Complex,” (MHC) which is found on chromosome six.

Map of MHC

There are two main types of MHC genes: Class I and Class II.

MHC Functions

Class I MHC contains three genes (HLA-A, B, and C). The three proteins encoded by these genes, HLA-A, -B, & -C, are found on the surfaces of almost all cells in our bodies. The exceptions are red blood cells and platelets, which do not have nuclei. Class II MHC genes consist of HLA-DR, DQ, and DP, and the proteins encoded by these genes are exclusive found on the surfaces of immune cells called “antigen-presenting cells” (includes macrophages, dendritic cells and B cells). Antigen-presenting cells recognize foreign substances in our bodies, grab them and, if you will, hold them up for everyone to see. The cells that usually respond to antigen presentation are immune cells called “T-cells.” T-cells are equipped with an antigen receptor that only binds antigens when those antigens are complexed with HLA proteins.

If you are given cells from another person who is genetically distinct from you, the HLA proteins on the surfaces of those cells are recognized by antigen-presenting cells as foreign substances. The antigen-presenting cells will them present pieces of the foreign HLA proteins on their surfaces, and T-cells will be sensitized to those proteins. These T-cells will them attack and destroy any cells in your body that have those foreign HLA proteins. This is the basis of transplant rejection and is the main reason transplant patients must continue to take drugs that prevent their T-cells from recognizing foreign HLA proteins as foreign.

When it comes to bone marrow transplantations, patients can almost never find a donor whose HLA surface proteins match perfectly. However, if the HLA proteins of the donor are too different from those of the recipient, then the cells from the bone marrow transplant attack the recipient’s cells and destroy them. This is called “Graft versus Host Disease” (GVHD). The inability of leukemia and lymphoma and other patients to receive bone marrow transplants is the unavailability of matching bone marrow. Globally, many thousands of patients are unable to get stem cell transplants needed to combat blood cancers such as leukemia because there is no donor match.

“About 40,000 people receive stem cell transplants each year, but that represents only about one-third of the patients who require this therapy,” says Dr. Dick. “That’s why there is a big push in research to explore cord blood as a source because it is readily available and increases the opportunity to find tissue matches. The key is to expand stem cells from cord blood to make many more samples available to meet this need. And we’re making progress.”

Umbilical cord blood, however, is different from adult bone marrow. The cells in umbilical cord blood are more immature and not nearly as likely to generate GVHD. Therefore, less perfect HLA matches can be used to treat patients in need of a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, umbilical cord blood has the drawback of have far fewer stem cells than adult bone marrow. If the number of blood-making (hematopoietic) stem cells in umbilical cord blood can be increased, then umbilical cord blood would become even more useful from a clinical perspective.

There has been a good deal of research into expanding the number of stem cells present in cord blood, the Dick/de Haan teams took a different approach. When a stem cell divides it produces a large number of “progenitor cells” that retain key properties of being able to develop into every one of the 10 mature blood cell types. These progenitor cells, however, have lost the critical ability to self-renew.

Dick and his colleagues analyzed mouse and human models of blood development, and they discovered that a microRNA called miR-125a is a genetic switch that is on in stem cells and controls self-renewal, but gets turned off in the progenitor cells.

“Our work shows that if we artificially throw the switch on in those downstream cells, we can endow them with stemness and they basically become stem cells and can be maintained over the long-term,” says Dr. Dick.

In their paper, Dick and de Haan showed that forced expression of miR-125 increases the number of hematopoietic stem cells in a living animal. Also, miR-125 induces stem cell potential in murine and human progenitor cells, and represses, among others, targets of the MAP kinase signaling pathway, which is important in differentiation of cells away from the stem cell fate. Furthermore, since miR-125 function and targets are conserved in human and mouse, what works in mice might very well work in human patients.

graphical abstract CSC_v9

This is proof-of-concept paper – no human trials have been conducted to date, but these data may be the beginnings of making more stem cells from banked cord blood to cure a variety of blood-based conditions.

Here’s to hoping.

Bilateral, Multiple, Intraspinal Stem Cell Injections are Safe for ALS


Jonathan Glass, professor of neurology at Emory University in School of Medicine, is the principal investigator of a phase 2 clinical trial that examined the safety of intraspinal injection of human spinal cord–derived neural stem cells in people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

This clinical trial was not designed to determine whether the treatment was effective, which is odd given that the trial was a phase 2 trial. Glass and his collaborators noted that the transplanted stem cells did not slow down the progression of the disease. However, given that the trial was not designed to detect efficacy, it is difficult to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions.

ALS is a disorder in which the motor neurons of the brain and spinal cord degenerate. Motor neuron degeneration causes progressive loss of muscle control, which includes breathing and swallowing (leading to death). There are no treatments that can stop ALS.

“Though there were two serious complications related to the treatment, the level of acceptable risk for treating patients with ALS, where the prognosis is poor and treatments are limited, is arguably higher than that for more benign disorders,” said Dr. Glass.

In this study, 15 ALS patients who manifested their first signs and symptoms of the disease within two years of the start of the study, were treated at three different university hospitals.

The participants were divided into five treatment groups that received increasing doses of stem cells. This trial was an “open-label” trial, which means that the participants knew they were getting active stem cell treatments.

Participants received bilateral (both sides) injections into the cervical spinal cord between the C3 and C5 regions. The final group received injections into both the lumbar (L2-L4) and cervical cord through two separate surgical procedures.

Vertebral Column regions

The numbers of injections ranged from 10 to 40, and the number of cells injected ranged from two million to 16 million. Because of the large range of injections and stem cells injected, determining the safety of these treatments was probably more important that the efficacy of the treatments.

During the nine months of follow-up, patients were assessed for side effects from the intraspinal injections and progression of the disease, according to the functional rating scale. Most of the side effects were related to temporary pain associated with surgery and to medications that suppress the immune system.

Two people developed serious complications related to the treatment. One patient developed spinal cord swelling that caused pain, sensory loss and partial paralysis, and another patient developed central pain syndrome; a neurological condition caused by damage to or dysfunction of the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain, brainstem, and spinal cord. This syndrome can be caused by stroke, multiple sclerosis, tumors, epilepsy, brain or spinal cord trauma, or Parkinson’s disease.

The participants’ functioning was compared to three historical control groups, and there was no difference in how fast the disease progressed between those
who received stem cells and those who did not. This is a significant finding because injecting cells into the spinal cord might actually accelerate the progression of the disease. However, this study seemed to show that 10-40 injections into the spinal do not affect the progression of ALS.

However, Glass cautioned that no conclusions can be draw about effectiveness of the treatment from such a small, non-blinded, non-placebo-controlled study.

“This study was not designed, nor was it large enough, to determine the effectiveness of slowing or stopping the progression of ALS. The importance of this study is that it will allow us to move forward to a larger trial specifically designed to test whether transplantation of human stem cells into the spinal cord will be a positive treatment for patients with ALS,” Dr. Glass said.

These results were published in Jonathan D. Glass et al., “Transplantation of spinal cord–derived neural stem cells for ALS: Analysis of phase 1 and 2 trials,” Neurology, June 2016 DOI:10.1212/WNL.0000000000002889.

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells from Diabetic Foot Ulcer Fibroblasts


Dr. Jonathan Garlick is professor of Oral Pathology at Tufts University and has achieved some notoriety among stem cell scientists by publishing a stem-cell rap on You Tube to teach people about the importance of stem cells.

Garlick and his colleagues have published a landmark paper in the journal Cellular Reprogramming in which cells from diabetic patients were reprogrammed into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

Garlick and his colleagues have established, for the first time, that skin cells from diabetic foot ulcers can be reprogrammed iPSCs. These cells can provide an excellent model system for diabetic wounds and may also used, in the future, to treat chronic wounds.

ESC and iPSCs differentiation to fibroblast fate. ESC and iPSC were differentiated and monitored at various stages of differentiation. Representative images show the morphology of ESC and 2 iPSC lines after days 1, 4, 7, 10, 14, 21 and 28 of differentiation. Early morphologic changes showed differentiation beginning at the periphery of colonies (day 1). At later stages cells acquired fibroblast features of elongated, stellate cells (day 10 at days 21 and 28 of differentiation.
ESC and iPSCs differentiation to fibroblast fate. ESC and iPSC were differentiated and monitored at various stages of differentiation. Representative images show the morphology of ESC and 2 iPSC lines after days 1, 4, 7, 10, 14, 21 and 28 of differentiation. Early morphologic changes showed differentiation beginning at the periphery of colonies (day 1). At later stages cells acquired fibroblast features of elongated, stellate cells (day 10 at days 21 and 28 of differentiation.

Garlick’s team at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts, have also used their diabetic-derived iPSCs to show that a protein called fibronectin is linked to a breakdown in the wound-healing process in cells from diabetic foot ulcers.

One of the goals of Garlick’s research is to develop efficient protocols to make functional cell types from iPSCs and to use them to generate 3D tissues that demonstrate a broad range of biological functions. His goal is to use the 3D model system to develop human therapies to replace or regenerate damaged human cells and tissues and restore their normal function.

In this paper, Garlick and his colleagues showed that not only can fibroblasts from diabetic wounds form iPSCs, but they can also participate in 3D skin-like tissues. This model system is more than a disease-in-a-dish system but disease-in-a-tissue system.

Fabrication of three-dimensional tissue construction. (A) A collagen gel embedded with human dermal fibroblasts is layered onto a polycarbonate membrane. (B) After dermal fibroblasts contract and remodel the collagen matrix, keratinocytes are then seeded onto it to create a monolayer that will form the basal layer of the tissue. (C) Tissues are raised to an air-liquid interface to initiate tissue development that mimics in vivo skin.
Fabrication of three-dimensional tissue construction. (A) A collagen gel embedded with human dermal fibroblasts is layered onto a polycarbonate membrane. (B) After dermal fibroblasts contract and remodel the collagen matrix, keratinocytes are then seeded onto it to create a monolayer that will form the basal layer of the tissue. (C) Tissues are raised to an air-liquid interface to initiate tissue development that mimics in vivo skin. From this site.

“The results are encouraging. Unlike cells taken from healthy human skin, cells taken from wounds that don’t heal – like diabetic foot ulcers – are difficult to grow and do not restore normal tissue function,” said Garlick. “By pushing these diabetic wound cells back to this earliest, embryonic stage of development, we have ‘rebooted’ them to a new starting point to hopefully make them into specific cell types that can heal wounds in patients suffering from such wounds.”

Scientists in Garlick’s laboratory used these 3D tissues to test the properties of cells from diabetic foot ulcers and found that cells from the ulcers get are not able to advance beyond synthesizing an immature scaffold made up predominantly of a protein called fibronectin.  Fibronectin, unfortunately, seems to prevent proper closure of wounds.

Fibronectin Sigma

Fibronectin has been shown to be abnormal in other diabetic complications, such as kidney disease, but this is the first study that directly connects it to cells taken from diabetic foot ulcers.

Deriving more effective therapies for foot ulcers has been slow going because of a lack of realistic wound-healing models that mimic the extracellular matrices of human tissues. This scaffolding is critical for wound repair in skin, and other tissue as well.

The work in this paper builds on earlier experiments that showed that cells from diabetic ulcers have fundamental defects that can be simulated using laboratory-grown 3D tissue models. These 3D models will almost certainly be a good model system to test new therapeutics that could improve wound healing and prevent those limb amputations that result when treatments fail.

Garlick’s 3D model will allow him and other researchers to push these studies forward. Can they differentiate their cells into more mature cell types that can be studied in 3D models to see if they will improve healing of chronic wounds?

More than 29 million Americans have diabetes. Diabetic foot ulcers, often resistant to treatment, are a major complication. The National Diabetes Statistics Report of 2014 stated that about 73,000 non-traumatic lower-limb amputations in 2010 were performed in adults aged 20 years or older with diagnosed diabetes, and approximately 60 percent of all non-traumatic lower-limb amputations occur in people with diabetes.

This paper appeared in: Behzad Gerami-Naini, et al., Cellular Reprogramming. June 2016, doi:10.1089/cell.2015.0087.

How Stem Cells Exit The Bloodstream


New research from a laboratory at North Carolina State University has changed our understanding of how therapeutic stem cells exit the bloodstream.  Understanding this new process, which has been given the name “angiopellosis” may not only increase our understanding of how intravenous stem cells home to their target tissues, but also how metastatic cancer cells invade new sites.

When white blood cells are summoned to a site of infection, they exit the bloodstream by means of a rather well understood process called “Leukocyte extravasation” or “diapedesis.”.

Leukocyte extravasation mostly occurs in post-capillary venules, where hemodynamic shear force are low.  This process is characterized by 4 steps: 1)  “chemoattraction;” 2)  “rolling adhesion;” 3) “tight adhesion;” and 4)  “(endothelial) transmigration.”. If any of these steps are inhibited, diapedesis does not occur.

White blood cells or leukocytes phagocytose or gobble up foreign particles, produce antibodies, secrete inflammatory response triggers (histamine and heparin), and neutralize histamine.  In general, leukocytes defend an organism and protect it from disease by promoting or inhibiting inflammatory responses. Leukocytes do most of their specific functions in tissues and they use the blood as a transport medium to reach the tissues of the body.

extravasation1319669430297

Below is a brief summary of each of the four steps involved in leukocyte extravasation:

1) Chemoattraction

Upon recognition of and activation by pathogenic organisms, resident macrophages in the affected tissue release small signaling proteins called “cytokines” such as IL-1, TNFα and chemokines (small molecules that induce cell migration). IL-1, TNFα and other blood-based  molecules induce the endothelial cells that line blood vessels near the site of infection to express cellular adhesion molecules, including selectins.  Circulating leukocytes are localized to the site of injury or infection as a result of secreted chemokines.

2) Rolling adhesion

Sugar residues on they surfaces of circulating leukocytes bind to these selectin molecules on the inner wall of the blood vessels.  This interaction, however, is relatively modest in its binding strength.  The sugar-selectin interaction causes the leukocytes to roll along the inner surface of the vessel wall as transient bounds are constantly broken and reformed between selectins and cell-bound sugars.

The carbohydrate binding partner for P-selectin, P-selectin glycoprotein ligand-1 (PSGL-1), is an expressed by different types of leukocytes. The binding of PSGL-1 on the leukocyte to P-selectin on the endothelial cell allows for the leukocyte to roll along the endothelial surface. This interaction can be fine-tuned by the different ways that sugars are attached to PSGL-1.   These different forms of PSGL-1 that have distinct patterns of sugar attachment have unique affinities for different selectins.  This gives different leukocytes varying abilities to migrate to distinct specific sites within the body.

3) Tight adhesion

The chemokines released by macrophages activate the rolling leukocytes and induce them to synthesize surface integrin molecules.   Integrin molecules create high-affinity associations between cells and bind tightly to complementary receptors expressed on endothelial cells. This immobilized the leukocytes, despite the shear forces of the ongoing blood flow.

4) Transmigration

The internal cytoskeleton of the leukocytes are reorganizes that the leukocytes spread out over the endothelial cells. In this form, leukocytes extend pseudopodia and pass through gaps between endothelial cells.  This migratory step requires the expression of PECAM proteins on both the surface  of the leukocytes and the endothelial cells.  PECAM interaction effectively pulls the cell through the endothelium. Once through the endothelium, the leukocyte must penetrate the underlying basement membrane.  The mechanism by which the leukocytes does this remains a source of some dispute.  Once in the interstitial fluid, leukocytes migrate along a gradient of attractant molecules towards the site of injury or infection.

When stem cells are administered intravenously, they too Havre a similar ability to leave the bloodstream, but the means by which they do so was poorly understood.

Ke Cheng and colleagues examined zebrafish and used genetically engineered fish whose blood vessels glowed a fluorescent color.  Next, these fish were injected with leukocytes, and stem cells from rats, humans, and dogs that had been labeled with a red fluorescent protein.  These cells were followed by means of time-lapsed, three-dimensional light sheet microscopic imaging.  This technology allowed Cheng and others to view the stem cells as they left the blood vessels.

As predicted, the leukocytes exited the bloodstream by means of leukocytes extravasation.  The stem cells, however, were actively expelled from the blood vessels by the endothelial cells.  The endothelial cells membranes moved around the stem cells, surrounded them, moved them through the endothelial cells and then extruded them on the opposite side of the blood vessel.  This is a very different process than diapedesis in which the leukocyte is the active participant.  In the case of the stem cells, the endothelial cells are the active participants and the stem cells passively exit the bloodstream.  Cheng and company called this process angiopellosis.

Other differences between angiopellosis and diapedesis involved the time of the process.  Diapedesis can occur rather quickly whereas angiopellosis takes hours.  During diapedesis, one cell moves at a time, but during angiopellosis, several cells are moved at a time.

How effective of a method is this to leave the bloodstream?  If cancer cells used angiopellosis to facilitate metastasis, cent we inhibit it?

Further work should answer these important questions.  This work was published in the journal Stem Cells, 2016; DOI:10.1002/stem.2451.

New Stem Cell Treatment for Bronchopleural Fistulas


Mayo Clinic researchers have made history by using a patient’s own stem cells to heal an open wound on the upper chest of a patient that had been caused by postoperative complications of lung removal.

A hole in the chest that opens to the outside is called a bronchopleural fistulae. Such wounds are holes that lead from large airways in the lungs to the membrane that lines the lungs.

Unfortunately, present treatments for bronchopulmonary fistulae tend to be terribly successful and death from such injuries are all too common.

According to Dr. Dennis Wigle, a Mayo Clinch Researcher, “Current management is not reliably successful. After exhausting therapeutic options, and with declining health of the patient, we moved toward a new approach. The protocol and approach were based on an ongoing trial investigating this method to treat anal fistulas in Cohn’s disease”.

So Dr. Wigle and his colleagues harvested stem cells from the belly fat of their patient and seeded onto a bioabsorbable mesh that was surgically implanted at the site of the fistula.

Follow-up imaging of the patient showed that the fistula had closed and remained healed. More than a year-and-a-half later, the patient remains asymptomatic and has been able to resume activities of daily living.

In their paper, Wigle and others describe their patient, a 63-year-old female patient, who was referred to Mayo Clinic for treatment of a large bronchopleural fistula.

Because present therapies offer little relief, Wigle and his team turned to regenerative therapies in order to try a more innovative treatment.

“To our knowledge, this case represents the first in human report of surgically placed stem cells to repair a large, multiple recurrent bronchopleural fistula. The approach was well tolerated suggesting the potential for expanded use,” said Dr. Wigle.

While this procedure was successful in this case, it is unclear if this treatment was the main contributor to the healing of the wound. Since this is a single-patient case study and not a double blinded, placebo-controlled study, it is lower-quality evidence.

However, Wigle and others hope to further examine this technique, and in particular, the use a patient’s own stem cells, to treat fistulae in the respiratory system.

This case study was published in Stem Cells Translational Medicine, June 2016 DOI:10.5966/sctm.2016-0078.

C-Cure Shows Positive Trends in Phase 3 Trial but Fails to Meet Primary Endpoints


Celyad has pioneered a stem cell treatment for the heart called C-Cure. C-Cure consists of bone marrow stem cells that are isolated from a bone marrow aspiration that are then treated with a proprietary concoction that drives the cells to become cardiac progenitor cells, After this treatment, the cells are administered to the patient by means of a catheter where they will hopefully regenerate dead heart muscle tissue, make new blood vessels to replace clogged and dead blood vessels, and also smooth muscle cells to regulate the diameter of the newly-formed blood vessels.

The first clinical trial for C-Cure was announced in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in June 2013. At this time, Celyad reported in their published data that all the mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) had been successfully primed with their cocktails and successfully delivered to each patient. The desired cell dose was achieved in 75% of patients in cell delivery without complications occurred in 100% of cases. Fortunately, there were incidents of increased cardiac or systemic toxicity induced by the therapy.

Patients also showed some improvements. For example, left ventricular ejection fraction was improved by cell therapy (from 27.5 ± 1.0% to 34.5 ± 1.1%) versus standard of care alone (from 27.8 ± 2.0% to 28.0 ± 1.8%, p = 0.0001) and was associated with a reduction in left ventricular end-systolic volume (−24.8 ± 3.0 ml vs. −8.8 ± 3.9 ml, p = 0.001). Patients was received MSC therapy also improved their 6-min walk distance (+62 ± 18 m vs. −15 ± 20 m, p = 0.01) and had a superior composite clinical score encompassing cardiac parameters in tandem with New York Heart Association functional class, quality of life, physical performance, hospitalization, and event-free survival. The initial trial examined 13 control patients who received standard care and 20 patients who received their own MSCs and followed them for 2 years.

The strategy surrounding C-Cure is based on preclinical experiments in laboratory mice in which animals that had suffered heart attacks were treated with human MSCs that had been isolated from volunteers and pretreated with a cocktail that consisted of transforming growth factor-beta1, bone morphogenetic protein-4, activin A, retinoic acid, insulin-like growth factor-1, fibroblast growth factor-2, alpha-thrombin, and interleukin-6. This cocktail apparently drove the cells to form a heart-like fate. Then the cocktail-treated MSCs were implanted into the hearts of the mice and in the words of the paper’s abstract, the cells “achieved superior functional and structural benefit without adverse side effects. Engraftment into murine hearts was associated with increased human-specific nuclear, sarcomeric, and gap junction content along with induction of myocardial cell cycle activity.”. must say that I did not see definitive proof in this paper that the implanted cells actually formed new myocardium as opposed to inducing native cardiac stem cell population to form new myocardial cells.

This present trial is a Phase 3 clinical trial and it examined changes in patient mortality, morbidity, quality of life, six-minute walk test, and left ventricular structure and function at nine months after the treatment was given, The trial recruited 271 evaluable patients with chronic advanced symptomatic heart failure in 12 different countries in Europe and Israel. Like the trial before it, it was double blinded, placebo controlled.

First the good news: the procedure was well tolerated with no safety concerns.

The bad news was that a statistically-significant difference between the control group and treatment group was not observed 39 weeks after treatment. There is a silver lining to all this though: a positive trend was seen across all treatment groups. More interestingly, the primary endpoint was met (p=0.015) for a subset of the patients treated with their own MSCs. This subset represents 60% of the population of the CHART-1 study (baseline End Diastolic Volume (EDV) segmentation), which is pretty significant subset of the subject group. These patients showed less mortality and worsening of heart failure, better quality of life, an improved 6-minute walk test, end systolic volume and an improved ejection fraction.

On the strength of these data, Celyad thinks that this 60^ might represent the patient population for whom C-Cure is a viable treatment. What remains is to determine exactly who those patients are, the nature of their disease, and how much patients might be identified.

Dr. Christian Homsy, CEO of Celyad, commented: “For the first time in a randomized, double-blind, controlled, Phase III cell therapy study, a positive effect, consistent across all parameters tested, was observed for a substantial, clearly definable, group of heart failure patients.

CHART-1 has allowed us to better define the patient population that would benefit from C-Cure®. We are excited by the prospects for C-Cure® as a new potential treatment option for a highly relevant heart failure population. We are confident that the results will generate interest from potential partners that could accelerate the development and commercialization of C-Cure®.”

Prof. Jozef Bartunek, CHART-1 principal co-investigator, said: “This pioneering study has contributed greatly to our understanding of heart failure disease and the place of regenerative medicine in its management. The results seen for a large clinically relevant number of the patients are ground breaking. We look forward to completing the full analysis and making the data available to the medical community at ESC.

On behalf of the CHART 1 steering committee we wish to thank the patients and families who were enrolled in the study as well as all the physicians and medical teams that made this study possible.”

Prof. Gerasimos Filippatos, Immediate Past-President of the Heart Failure Association of the European Society of Cardiology, member of the CHART-1 dissemination committee, said, “The CHART-1 results have identified a well-defined group of patients with symptomatic heart failure despite optimal therapy. Those patients are a large subset of the heart failure population and present specific therapeutic challenges. The outcome of CHART-1 indicate those patients could benefit from this therapy”.

The Company will use their CHART-1 results as the foundation of their CHART-2 US trial, which will test the target patient group with C-CURE. Celyad is also in the process of seeking partnerships to accelerate further development and commercialization of C-Cure®.

Do C-CURE cells make new heart muscle cells?  Count me skeptical.,  Just because cells form something that looks like cardiac cells in culture is no indication that they form tried and true heart muscle cells.  This is especially true, since bone marrow-based cells lack the calcium handling machinery of heart muscle cells and until someone definitely shows that bone marrow cells can be transdiferentiated into cells that possess the calcium handling proteins of heart muscle cells, I will remain skeptical,

Having said that, this is a very interesting clinical trial despite the fact that it failed to meet its primary endpoints.  Further work might even make more of it.  Here’s to hoping.

Phase I Clinical Trial of Fat-Based Mesenchymal Stem Cells for Severe Osteoarthritis


In the July 2016 edition of the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine, a report has been published that lays out the results of a phase I clinical trial that used mesenchymal stem cells from a patient’s own fat tissues to treat osteoarthritis of the knee.  This study was not placebo controlled, but did examine the effects of escalated doses on the patient.  The main  investigator for this trial was Dr. Christian Jorgensen from Lapeyronie University Hospital in Montpellier, France.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common musculoskeletal condition in adults and it can cause a good deal of pain and disability.

Joints like the knee consist of a junction between two or more bones.  The ends of these bones are capped by layer of cartilage called “hyaline cartilage” that serves as a shock absorber.  Larger joints like the knee, shoulder, and hip are encased in a sac called the “bursa” that is filled with lubricating synovial fluid.

Knee

OA involves damage and/or destruction of the cartilage caps at the ends of long bones, and erosion and ultimately permanent changes in the structure of bone that underlies the cartilage at the end of the bone. The knee loses its shock absorbers and lubricators and becomes a grinding, inflamed, painful caricature of its former self.

To treat OA, most orthopedic surgeons will replace the damaged knee with an artificial knee that is attached the upper (femur) and lower (tibia and fibula) bones of the leg.  This procedure, arthroplasty, reconstructs the knee with artificial materials that form synthetic joints.  Alternatively, some enterprising physicians have tried to use stem cells from bone marrow to repair eroded cartilage in the knees of OA patients.  Christopher Centeno and his colleagues at his clinic near Denver, CO and affiliated sites have pioneered procedures for OA patients.  However, Dr. Centeno remains skeptical of the ability of stem cells from fat to treat patients with OA.

In animal studies, OA of the knee can be induced by injected tissue-destroying enzymes.  If laboratory mice that received injectionof these enzymes into their knees are then treated with fat-based mesenchymal stem cells, the effects and symptoms of OA do not appear (ter Huurne M, et al. Arthritis Rheum 2012; 64:3604-3613).  In another study in rabbits, injections of 2-6 million fat-derived mesenchymal stem cells into the knee-joint of rabbits suffering from OA improved cartilage health and inhibited cartilage degradation.  These administered cells also reduced inflammation in the knee (Desando G., et al., Arthritis Res Ther 2013; 15:R22).  Therefore, fat-based mesenchymal stem seem to have some ability to ameliorate the effects and consequences of OA, at least in preclinical studies.  This trial is the beginnings of what will hopefully be a series of experiments that will assess the ability (or inability) to treat OA patients.

18 patients were enrolled from an initial pool of 48 candidates who all suffered from severe, symptomatic OA of the knee.  Six patients received 2 million mesenchymal stem cells isolated from their own fat, 6 others received ten million mesenchymal stem cells isolated from their own fat, and the final group of 6 OA patients received 50 million mesenchymal stem cells isolated from their own fat tissues.  These mesenchymal stem cells were isolated from the patient’s fat that was collected by means of liposuction.  The fat was then processed by means of a standard protocol that is used to isolated mesenchymal stem cells from human fat (see Bura A, et al., Cytotherapy 2014; 16:245-257).  All patients received their stem cells by means of injection into the knee-joint (inter-articular injections).

Because this is a Phase I clinical trial, assessing the safety of the procedure is one of the main goals of this study.  No adverse effects were associated with either the liposuction or the interarticular injections.  The article even states: “Laboratory tests, vital signs and electrocardiograms indicated no local or systemic safety concerns.”. Four patients experienced slight knee pain and joint effusion that either resolved by itself or with treatment with a nonsteroidal antinflammatory drug (think ibuprofen).  Therefore it seems fair to conclude that this procedure seems safe, but a larger, placebo-controlled study is still required to confirm this.

As to the patient’s clinical outcomes, 17 of the 18 patients elected to forego total knee replacement.  All patients showed improvement in pain and knee functionality at 1 week, 3 months and 6 months after the procedure.  However, only the low-dose group showed improvements that were statistically significant.

F2.medium
WOMAC pain and function improvement during the study (WOMAC = Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Arthritis Index)

WOMAC pain and function improvement during the study. Abbreviation: WOMAC, Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Arthritis Index.

Seven of the patients treated in Germany (11 patients were treated in France and 7 were treated in Germany) were also examined with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) before and 4 months after the procedure.  Six of the seven patients showed what could be interpreted as improvements in cartilage.

F3.medium (2)
Enter a caption

dGEMRIC and T1rho magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of selected patients. The graphs on the left show the dGEMRIC (n = 6) and T1rho (n = 5) values before and 4 months after cell therapy. Increasing dGEmRIC and decreasing T1rho values are each known to correspond to increasing glycosaminoglycan/proteoglycan content and thus improved cartilage condition. On the right, the corresponding dGEMRIC and T1rho maps are shown as a color-coded overlay on an anatomical MRI for a patient receiving a low cell dose. The observed values in the cartilage change in the time course can be easily seen and correspond to an increase in cartilage condition. Abbreviation: dGEMRIC, delayed gadolinium-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging of cartilage.

Tissue biopsies of 11 of the 18 patients revealed an absence of significant inflammation, but some patients (4-5) showed signs of weak or moderate inflammation.  One patient showed what seemed to be a sheet of MSC cells on the surface of the cartilage.

F4.medium (2)
Enter a caption

Histologic findings. (A): Vascular congestion and weak lymphocytic infiltrate of the synovial (case 8) (magnification, ×50). (B): Osteoarthritic cartilage OARSI grade >3 (case 4) (×25). (C): Toluidine blue staining (case 2) (magnification, ×100). (D): Stem cell stroma shows an Alcian blue depleted matrix compared with the strong staining of osteoarthritic cartilage (case 2) (magnification, ×100). (E): Weak PS100 staining of possible stem cells on the cartilage surface and strong PS100 staining of chondrocytes (case 2) (magnification, ×100). Abbreviations: OARSI, Osteoarthritis Research Society International.

The primary outcome of this study – the safety of interarticular injections of fat0-based mesenchymal stem cells – seems to have been satisfied.  This is similar to the safety profiles of such cells in clinical trials that have used fat-based mesenchymal stem cells to treat fistulae in inflammatory bowel disease (Bura A, et al., Cytotherapy 2014; 16: 245-257) or critical limb ischemia (Lee WY and others, Stem Cells 2013; 31:2575-2581).  Also, patients showed improvements in pain and functionality.  Even though there was no placebo in this study, a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study that examined the use of efficacy of interarticular hyaluronic acid injections showed a smaller decreased in pain score that what was observed in this case (22.9 ± 1.4 vs 30.7 ± 10.7).  It is doubtful that the injected mesenchymal stem cells made much cartilage but instead quelled inflammation and stimulated resident stem cell populations to repair damage in the knee.

This study is small and is not placebo controlled, however, the hopeful results do warrant a larger, phase 1/2 placebo-controlled study that is apparently already underway.

An even more intriguing project might be to prime the isolated mesenchymal stem cells to make cartilage and then use live fluoroscopy to overlay the cells on the actual cartilage lesions.  While this is a more exacting procedure, it is the way Centeno and his group are using stem cells to treat their patients, and a true head-to-head study of the efficacy of fat-based mesenchymal stem cells versus bone marrow-based mesenchymal stem cells would be immensely useful.

Pancreatic Cancers Treated Better By Breaking Up Scar Tissue


Despite advances in cancer treatment, tumors of the pancreas remain among the most difficult to treat. To date, pancreatic cancers remain largely resistant to immune-based therapies, despite the successes of immunotherapies in treating lung cancers and melanomas.

A new study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis that was published in the journal Nature Medicine, has shown that immunotherapy against pancreatic cancer can shrink these tumors if they are given in combination with drugs that break up the fibrous scar tissue in these tumors.

Physicians at Siteman Cancer Center at Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital are using the strength of these data to conduct a phase 1 clinical trial in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer. This clinical trial will test the safety of this drug combination when given alongside standard chemotherapy.

“Pancreatic tumors are notoriously unresponsive to both conventional chemotherapy and newer forms of immunotherapeutics,” said senior author David G. DeNardo, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine. “We suspect that the fibrous environment of the tumor that is typical of pancreatic cancer may be responsible for the poor response to immune therapies that have been effective in other types of cancer.”

Pancreatic cancers are unusual among cancers since they characteristically consist of large swaths of scar tissue. These balls of fibrous tissue that surround the tumor create a protective environment for cancer cells. These scar tissue-based capsules prevent the immune system accessing the tumor cells and also limit the exposure of these tumors to chemotherapies that have been administered through the bloodstream. DeNardo and his colleagues used a mouse model of pancreatic cancer to determine if disrupting these fibrous capsules could sensitize pancreatic tumors to chemotherapy regimens.

Pancreatic tumors are surrounded by a protective "nest" made of fibrotic scar tissue and the cells that manufacture it (red). A new study demonstrates that disrupting this fibrous tissue makes immune therapy and chemotherapy more effective in attacking tumors of the pancreas. (Image: DeNardo Lab)
Pancreatic tumors are surrounded by a protective “nest” made of fibrotic scar tissue and the cells that manufacture it (red). A new study demonstrates that disrupting this fibrous tissue makes immune therapy and chemotherapy more effective in attacking tumors of the pancreas. (Image: DeNardo Lab)

“Proteins called focal adhesion kinases are known to be involved in the formation of fibrous tissue in many diseases, not just cancer,” DeNardo said. “So we hypothesized that blocking this pathway might diminish fibrosis and immunosuppression in pancreatic cancer.”

Focal adhesion kinase (FAK) is a protein (encoded by the PTKs gene) that controls cell adhesion and cell motility. Inhibiting FAK activity in breast cancer cells makes them less likely to spread to other organs (see Chan, K.T., et al. 2009. J. Cell Biol. doi:10.1083/jcb.200809110). Small molecules have been designed that can readily inhibit FAK, and DeNardo and his colleagues used FAK inhibitors against pancreatic cancer in combination with immunotherapy.

Focal Adhesion Kinase

In their mouse study, an investigational FAK inhibitor was administered to mice in combination with a clinically approved immune therapy that activates the patient’s own T-cells so that they can effectively attack tumor cells.

Mice that had pancreatic cancer survived no longer than two months when given either a FAK inhibitor or immune therapy alone. If the FAK inhibitors were added to standard chemotherapy, the tumor response improved over chemotherapy alone. However, the three-drug combination that consisted of FAK inhibitors, immune therapy and chemotherapy, displayed the best outcomes in laboratory studies and more than tripled survival times in some mice. Some were still alive without evidence of progressing disease at six months after treatment and beyond.

The success of this mouse study provided a strong rationale for testing this drug combination in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, according to oncologist Andrea Wang-Gillam, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medicine, who was involved with this research.

“This trial is one of about a dozen we are conducting specifically for pancreatic cancer at Washington University,” she said. “We hope to improve outcomes for these patients, especially since survival with metastatic pancreatic cancer is typically only six months to a year. The advantage of our three-pronged approach is that we are attacking the cancer in multiple ways, breaking up the fibers of the tumor microenvironment so that more immune cells and more of the chemotherapy drug can attack the tumor.”

Mesenchymal Stem Cells from Bone Marrow Improve Liver Function and Reduce Liver Scarring in Patients with Alcoholic Cirrhosis


Dr Soon Koo Baik from the Yonsei University Wonju College of Medicine, and Dr. Si Hyun Bae from The Catholic University of Korea and their colleagues have conducted an important phase 2 clinical trial that tests the ability of mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow to treat cirrhosis of the liver. In this trial, seventy-two patients who had established cirrhosis of the liver participated in a multicenter, randomized, open-label, phase 2 trial (published in the journal Hepatology, DOI:10.1002/hep.28693).

The liver is a hugely important organ. Not only is it the largest internal organ in our bodies, but it serves as the main metabolic factory of the body because of the outsized role it plays in metabolism. The liver takes up and stores and processes nutrients from food. Once it processes fats, sugars, and amino acids, the liver delivers them to the rest of the body. The liver also makes new proteins, such as clotting and immune factors, produces bile, which helps the body absorb fats, cholesterol, and fat-soluble vitamins, and removes waste products the kidneys cannot remove, such as fats, cholesterol, toxins, and medications.

The condition known as cirrhosis is a condition in which the liver gradually deteriorates and becomes unable to function normally due to chronic, or long-lasting, injury. The accumulation of scar tissue in the liver is typically slow and gradual and as scar tissue replaces more healthy liver tissue, the liver begins to fail. Scar tissue also partially blocks the flow of blood through the liver. Chronic liver failure (also known as end-stage liver disease) culminates in the inability of the liver to perform important functions. Since the liver is an organ that have a good deal of regenerative ability, end-stage liver disease essentially becomes so damaged that it cannot effectively replace damaged cells.

Cirrhosis is most commonly called by chronic alcoholism, but so can chronic viral infections by viruses like hepatitis B virus and hepatitis C virus.  Additionally, particular genetic diseases can also cause cirrhosis in children or young adults.

Mesenchymal stem cells have the ability to secrete cocktails of pro-healing molecules that might be able to support the growth and survival of liver cells. A variety of experiments in animals have established that the administration of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) from bone marrow (Truong, NH, et al., Stem Cells Int. 2016;2016:5720413. doi: 10.1155/2016/5720413; Almeida-Porada G, et al., Exp Hematol. 2010;38:574–580; Berardis S, et al., World J Gastroenterol. 2015;21:742–758), and other sources (De Ugarte DA, et al., Cells Tissues Organs. 2003;174:101–109; in ‘t Anker PS, etr al., Haematologica. 2003;88:845–852; Lee OK, et al., Blood. 2004;103:1669–1675) can decrease inflammation within the liver, inhibit the death of liver cells and promote their survival, and promote the regeneration of residential liver cells.

In clinical trials, administration of MSCs to cirrhosis patients has established the safety of MSC-based treatments (Amin MA, et al., Clin Transplant. 2013;27:607–612; El-Ansary M, et al., Stem Cell Rev. 2012;8:972–981; Jang YO, et al., Liver Int. 2014;34:33–41; Kharaziha P, et al., Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2009;21:1199–1205; Mohamadnejad M, et al., Arch Iran Med. 2007;10:459–466). Unfortunately, the design of these trials involved the mixing of patients with alcohol-based cirrhosis, viral-based cirrhosis, and other types of cirrhosis. Therefore, it is impossible to draw any conclusions about the efficacy of MSC transplantations on the basis of these trials. However, one trial, by Jang, et al, examined the effect of MSCs from bone marrow in patients with alcoholic cirrhosis. After 11 patients received MSC implantations, improvements in liver tissue architecture were observed in 6/11 patients, and 10 patients showed recovery of liver function. These 10 patients had decreased expression of molecules that induce scarring in the liver (i.e. TGF-β1, collagen type I, and α-smooth muscle actin). Significantly, Jang and others observed these improvements in the absence of significant complications or side effects during the study period. On the strength of these results, a larger phase 2 study is certainly warranted (see F. Ezquer, et al., World J Gastroenterol. 2016 Jan 7; 22(1): 24–36).

In this Bak and Bae clinical trials, 72 patients were randomly assigned to three groups that consisted of a control group and two autologous bone marrow-based MSC groups that underwent either one-time or two-time hepatic arterial injections of 5 × 10[7] MSCs, 30 days after bone marrow aspiration. All patients also underwent a follow-up biopsy 6 months after enrollment and adverse events were monitored for 12 months.

The primary endpoint in this study was the improvement in the amount of scar tissue in biopsies (as assayed by Picrosirius-red staining). The secondary endpoints included liver function tests, a measure of the severity of cirrhosis called the Child-Pugh score, and another score called the Model for End-stage Liver Disease (MELD) score. The outcomes were analyzed by per-protocol analysis.

When it comes to the amount of scar tissue in the patient’s livers, patients that received one-time and two-time bone marrow-based MSC administrations, showed 25% (19.5±9.5% vs. 14.5±7.1%) and 37% (21.1±8.9% vs. 13.2±6.7%) reductions in the amount of liver scar after MSC administration, respectively (P0.05). The Child-Pugh scores of both BM-MSC groups (one-time: 7.6±1.0 vs. 6.3±1.3 and two-time: 7.8±1.2 vs. 6.8±1.6) were also significantly improved following BM-MSC transplantation (P<0.05) compared to the control group that did not receive MSCs. Most significantly, perhaps, is that the proportion of patients with adverse events did not differ among the three groups.

From this larger phase 2 study, it seems that transplantation of a patient’s own bone marrow-based MSCs can safely improve the degree of scarring in the liver of cirrhosis patients and also improve liver function in patients with alcoholic cirrhosis. This study seems to confirm what was observed in preclinical studies in laboratory animals and extends what was observed in the phase 1 studies. While more work is certainly required, these results are certainly hopeful.

New Autoimmune Treatment Removes Rogue Immune Cells Without Suppressing the Immune System


New preclinical experiments by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have established that genetically engineered T-cells can drive severe autoimmune diseases into remission without suppressing the patient’s immune system. If the principles applied in this study also prove to be true in human patients, they can potentially revolutionize the treatment of autoimmune diseases.

Autoimmune diseases result when your immune system recognizes your own cells and tissues as foreign and mounts and immune response against them. Autoimmune diseases like systemic lupus erythematosus (also known as “lupus”), rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, Sjögren’s syndrome, polymyalgia rheumatic, or ankylosing spondylitis can deeply affect the health of an individual and can also cause large amounts of tissue damage.

Treatment of autoimmune diseases usually requires high doses of drugs that suppress the immune system, such as corticosteroids, or various types of biological agents that also cause a host of undesirable side effects.

This new study, however, by scientists from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have adapted an already-existing technology to remove the subset of antibody-making cells that cause the autoimmune disease. This strategy removes the rogue immune cells without harming the rest of the immune system.

In these experiments, the University of Pennsylvania team examined an autoimmune disease called pemphigus vulgaris or PV. PV results when the immune system recognizes a protein called desmoglein-3 (Dsg3) as foreign and attacks it. Dsg3 helps form attachment sites called “desmosomes” that normally adhere skin cells together to form tight, tough sheets. Desmosomes are also found between epithelial cells, myocardial cells, and other cell types.

desmosomes

Current therapies for autoimmune diseases like PV use drugs like prednisone and rituximab, which suppress large parts of the immune system. Consequently, prednisone and rituximab can leave patients vulnerable to potentially fatal opportunistic infections and cancers.

To treat PV, University of Pennsylvania researcher Aimee Payne and her colleagues used a mouse version of PV that is fatal in mice. Their experimental treatment, however, successfully treated this otherwise fatal autoimmune disease without causing any unintended side effects, which might harm healthy tissue. The results from these experiments were published in the journal Science.

“This is a powerful strategy for targeting just autoimmune cells and sparing the good immune cells that protect us from infection,” said Dr Payne, who serves as the Albert M. Kligman Associate Professor of Dermatology at the Perelman School of Medicine.

In collaboration with Dr. Michael Milone, assistant professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Payne and her colleagues adapted the Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-Cell (CART-Cell) technology that is being successfully used to experimentally treat malignant cells in certain leukemias and lymphomas. “Our study effectively opens up the application of this anti-cancer technology to the treatment of a much wider range of diseases, including autoimmunity and transplant rejection,” Milone said.

Aimee Payne, Michael Milone, Christoph Ellebrecht, left to right
Aimee Payne, Michael Milone, Christoph Ellebrecht, left to right

CART-Cells are T-lymphocytes that have been extracted from the peripheral blood of cancer patients and then genetically engineered to express a receptor that specifically recognizes a protein on the surface of tumor cells. These chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-expressing cytotoxic T-lymphocytes have the ability to recognize and destroy tumor cells, which shrinks the tumor and potentially cures the patient.

CAAR technology

The core concepts behind CAR T-cells were first described in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, technical challenges prevented the development of this technology until later. However, since 2011, experimental CAR T cell treatments for B cell leukemias and lymphomas have been successful in some patients for whom all standard therapies had failed.

Antibody-producing B-lymphocytes or B-cells can also cause autoimmunity. A few years ago, a postdoctoral researcher in Payne’s laboratory named Dr. Christoph T. Ellebrecht came upon CAR T cell technology as a potential strategy for deleting rogue B-cells that make antibodies against a patient’s own tissues. Soon Payne and her team had teamed up with Milone’s, which studies CAR T cell technology. Their goal was to find a new way to treat autoimmune diseases.

“We thought we could adapt this technology that’s really good at killing all B cells in the body to target specifically the B cells that make antibodies that cause autoimmune disease,” said Milone.

“Targeting just the cells that cause autoimmunity has been the ultimate goal for therapy in this field,” noted Payne.

Because an excellent mouse model existed for PV, Payne and Milone decided to examine pemphigus vulgaris. Since PV consists of a patient’s antibodies attacking those molecules that normally keep skin cells together, it can cause extensive skin blistering and is almost always fatal. PV is treatable with broadly immunosuppressive drugs such as prednisone, mycophenolate mofetil, and rituximab.

However, to treat PV without causing broad immunosuppression, the Penn team designed an artificial CAR-type receptor that would home the patient’s own genetically engineered T-cells exclusively to those B-cells that produce harmful anti-Dsg3 antibodies.

Payne and Milone and their colleagues developed a “chimeric autoantibody receptor,” or CAAR, that displays fragments of the Dsg3 on their cell surfaces. Since the Dsg3 protein is the target of the PV-causing B-cells, the CAAR acts as a lure for the rogue B cells that target Dsg3. The CAAR effectively brings the cells into fatal contact with the therapeutic T cells.

After testing a battery of different cultured, genetically engineered T-cells, these teams eventually found a CAAR that worked well in cell culture and enabled host T cells to efficiently destroy anti-desmoglein-producing B-cells. These cultured cells worked so well that they even killed B-cells isolated from PV patients. The engineered CAAR T cells also performed successfully in a mouse model of PV. The CAAR T-cell effectively killed desmoglein-specific B cells, prevented blistering, and other manifestations of autoimmunity in the animals. “We were able to show that the treatment killed all the Dsg3-specific B cells, a proof of concept that this approach works,” Payne said.

Not only were these treatments devoid of undesirable side effects in the laboratory mice they studied, but they maintained their potency despite the presence of high levels of anti-Dsg3 antibodies that might have swamped out their CAARs.

Next, Payne plans to test her treatment in dogs, which can also develop PV and often die from it. “If we can use this technology to cure PV safely in dogs, it would be a breakthrough for veterinary medicine, and would hopefully pave the way for trials of this therapy in human pemphigus patients,” Payne said.

Penn scientists would also like to develop applications of CAAR T cell technology for other types of autoimmunity. Organ transplant rejection, which is also related to autoimmunity, complicates organ transplants, and normally requires long-term immunosuppressive drug therapy, may also be treatable with CAAR T cell technology.

“If you can identify a specific marker of a B cell that you want to target, then in principle this strategy can work,” Payne said.