Patient-Specific Heart Muscle Cells Before the Baby Is Born

Prenatal ultrasound scans can detect congenital heart defects (CHDs) before birth. Some 1% of all children born per year have some kind of CHD. Most of these children will require some kind of rather invasive, albeit life-saving surgery but an estimated 25% of these children will die before their first birthday. This underscores the need for netter therapies of children with CHDs.

To that end, Shaun Kunisaka from C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan and his colleagues have used induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology to make patient-specific heart muscle cells in culture from the baby’s amniotic fluid cells. Because these cells can be generated in less than 16 weeks, and because the amniotic fluid can be harvested at about 20-weeks gestation, this procedure can potentially provide large quantities of heart muscle cells before the baby is born.

In this paper, which was published in Stem Cells Translational Medicine, Kunisaki and others collected 8-10 milliliter samples of amniotic fluid at 20 weeks gestation from two pregnant women who provided written consent for their amniocentesis procedures. The amniotic fluid cells from these small samples were expanded in culture, and between passages 3 and 5, cells were selected for mesenchymal stem cell properties. These amniotic fluid mesenchymal stem cells were then infected with genetically engineered non-integrating Sendai viruses that caused transient expression of the Oct4, Sox2, Klf4, and c-Myc genes in these cells. The transient expression of these four genes drove the cells to dedifferentiate into iPSCs that were then grown and then differentiated into heart muscle cells, using well-worked out protocols that have become rather standard in the field.

Not only were the amniotic fluid mesenchymal stem cells very well reprogrammed into iPSCs, but these iPSCs also could be reliably differentiated into cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells, that is) that had no detectable signs of the transgenes that were used to reprogram them, and, also, had normal karyotypes. Karyotypes are spreads of a cell’s chromosomes, and the chromosome spreads of these reprogrammed cells were normal.

As to what kinds of heart muscle cells were made, these cells showed the usual types of calcium cycling common to heart muscle cells. These cells also beat faster when they were stimulated with epinephrine-like molecules (isoproterenol in this case). Interestingly, the heart muscle cells were a mixed population of ventricular cells that form the large, lower chambers of the heart, atrial cells, that form the small, upper chambers of the heart, and pacemaker cells that spontaneously form their own signals to beat.

This paper demonstrated that second-trimester human amniotic fluid cells can be reliably reprogrammed into iPSCs that can be reliably differentiated into heart muscle cells that are free of reprogramming factors. This approach does have the potential to produce patient-specific, therapeutic-grade heart muscle cells for treatment before the child is even born.

Some caveats do exist. The use of the Sendai virus means that cells have to be passaged several times to rid them of the viral DNA sequences. Also, to make these clinical-grade cells, all animal produces in their production must be removed. Tremendous advances have been made in this regard to date, but those advancements would have to be applied to this procedure in order to make cells under Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) standards that are required for clinical-grade materials. Finally, neither of these mothers had children who were diagnosed with a CHD. Deriving heart muscle cells from children diagnosed with a CHD and showing that such cells had the ability to improve the function of the heart of such children is the true test of whether or not this procedure might work in the clinic.

Patient-Specific Heart Cells Made from Amniotic Fluid Cells Before a Baby is Born

The dream of cardiologists is to have stockpiles of cardiac progenitor cells that could be transplanted into a sick heart and regenerate it. Even more remarkable would be a source of heart cells for newborn babies with congenital heart problems. What about making these cells before they are born? Science fiction?

Probably not. Dr. Shaun M. Kunisaki from Mott Children’s Hospital and the University of Michigan School of Medicine and his colleagues made heart progenitor cells from Amniotic Fluid Cells. These cells were acquired from routine amniocentesis procedures, with proper institutional review board approval.

These amniotic fluid specimens (8–10 ml), which were taken from babies at 20 weeks gestation, were expanded in culture and then reprogrammed toward pluripotency using nonintegrating Sendai virus (SeV) vectors that expressed the four commonly-used reprogramming genes; OCT4, SOX2, cMYC, and KLF4. The resulted induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) lines were then exposed to cardiogenic differentiation conditions in order to generate spontaneously beating amniotic fluid-derived cardiomyocytes (AF-CMs). AF-CMs were formed with high efficiency.

After 6 weeks, Kunisaki and his team subjected their AF-CMs to a battery of quantitative gene expression experiments. They discovered that their AF-CMs expressed high levels of heart-specific genes (including MYH6, MYL7, TNNT2, TTN, and HCN4). However, Kunisaki and others also found that their AF-CMs consisted of a mixed population of differentiated atrial, ventricular, and nodal cells, as demonstrated by various genes expression profiles.

All AF-CMs were chromosomally normal and had no remnants of the SeV transgenes. Functional characterization of these AF-CMs showed a higher spontaneous beat frequency in comparison with heart cells made from dermal fibroblasts. The AF-CMs also showed normal calcium currents and appropriately responded to neurotransmitters that usually speed up the heart, like norepinephrine.

Collectively, these data suggest that human amniotic fluid-derived cells can be used to produce highly scalable sources of functional, transgene-free, autologous heart cells before child is born. Such an approach may be ideally suited for patients with prenatally diagnosed cardiac anomalies.

Culture Medium from Human Amniotic Membrane Mesenchymal Stem Cells Promotes Cell Survival and Blood Vessel Production in Damaged Rat Hearts

The laboratory of Massimiliono Gnecchi at the Fondazione IRCCS Policlinico San Matteo in Pavia, Italy has used the products of amniotic mesenchymal stem cells to treat heart attacks in laboratory rodents. The results are rather interesting.

In a paper published in the May 2015 edition of the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine, Gnecchi and his colleagues grew human amniotic mesenchymal stem cells derived from amniotic membrane (hAMCs) in cell culture.

These cells were isolated from amniotic membrane donated by mothers who were undergoing Caesarian sections. The membranes were removed, and grown in standard culture media under standard conditions. Once the cells grew out, they were collected and grow in a medium known as DMEM (Dulbecco’s modified Eagle Medium). After the cells had grown for 36 hours, they culture medium was filtered, concentrated, and readied for use.

The first experiments included the use of this conditioned culture medium to treat H9c2 embryonic heart muscle cells with in culture and then expose the heart muscle cells to low oxygen conditions. Normally, low oxygen conditions kill heart muscle cells. However, the cells pre-treated with conditioned medium from hAMCs showed much more robust survival in low-oxygen conditions. This shows that molecules secreted by hAMCs had promote the survival of heart muscle cells.

Next, Gnecchi and his team used their conditioned medium to treat laboratory rats that had suffered heart attacks. Some of the rats were treated with conditioned culture medium from cultured skin cells and others with sterile saline. The culture medium was injected directly into the heart muscle.  The rats treated with conditioned medium from hAMCs showed far less cell death than the other rats. The rats treated with the hAMC-treated culture medium also had vastly denser concentrations of new blood vessels.

It is well-known that mesenchymal stem cells from many sources are filled with small vesicles known as exosomes that are loaded with healing molecules. Mesenchymal stem cells release these exosomes when they home to damaged tissues. The culture medium from the hAMCs were almost certainly filled with exosomes. The molecules released by these cells helped promote heart muscle cell survival in the oxygen-depleted heart, and induced the recruited large numbers of EPCs (endothelial progenitor cells), which established large numbers of new blood vessels. These new blood vessels gave oxygen to formerly depleted heart tissue and promoted heart healing. The size of the heart scar was smaller in the rats treated with hAMC-conditioned medium.

Unfortunately there were no measurement of cardiac function so we are not told if this treatment affected ejection fraction, or other physiological parameters. Nevertheless, this paper does show that exosomes from hAMCs do promote the production of blood vessels and cell survival.

Amniotic Fluid Stem Cells Make Robust Blood Vessel Networks

The growth of new blood vessels in culture received in new boost from researchers at Rice University and Texas Children’s Hospital who used stem cells from amniotic fluid to promote the growth of robust, functional blood vessels in healing hydrogels.

These results were published in the Journal of Biomedical Materials Research Part A.

Engineer Jeffrey Jacot thinks that amniotic fluid stem cells are valuable for regenerative medicine because of their ability to differentiate into many other types of cells, including endothelial cells that form blood vessels. Amniotic fluid stem cells are taken from the discarded membranes in which babies are encased in before birth. Jacot and others combined these cells with an injectable hydrogel that acted as a scaffold.

In previous experiments, Jacot and his colleagues used amniotic fluid cells from pregnant women to help heal infants born with congenital heart defects. Amniotic fluids, drawn during standard tests, are generally discarded but show promise for implants made from a baby’s own genetically matched material.

“The main thing we’ve figured out is how to get a vascularized device: laboratory-grown tissue that is made entirely from amniotic fluid cells,” Jacot said. “We showed it’s possible to use only cells derived from amniotic fluid.”

Researchers from Rice, Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine combined amniotic fluid stem cells with a hydrogel made from polyethylene glycol and fibrin. Fibrin is the proteins formed during blood clots, but it is also used for cellular-matrix interactions, wound healing and angiogenesis (the process by which new vessels are made). Fibrin is widely used as a bioscaffold but it suffers from low mechanical stiffness and is degraded rapidly in the body. When fibrin was combined with polyethylene glycol, the hydrogel became much more robust, according to Jacot.

Additionally, these groups used a growth factor called vascular endothelial growth factor to induce the stem cells to differentiate into endothelial cells. Furthermore, when induced in the presence of fibrin, these cells infiltrated the native vasculature from neighboring tissue to make additional blood vessels.

When mice were injected with fibrin-only hydrogels, thin fibril structures formed. However if those same hydrogels were infused with amniotic fluid stem cells that had been induced with vascular endothelial growth factor, the cell/fibrin hydrogel concoctions showed far more robust vasculature.

In similar experiments with hydrogels seeded with bone marrow-derived mesenchymal cells, once again, vascular growth was observed, but these vessels did not have the guarantee of a tissue match. Interestingly, seeding with endothelial cells didn’t work as well as the researchers expected, he said.

Jacot and others will continue to study the use of amniotic stem cells to build biocompatible patches for the hearts of infants born with birth defects and for other procedures.

Human Amniotic Fluid Stem Cells Can Act Like Heart Cells, Sort of

Human amniotic fluid-derived stem cells (AFSC) have a demonstrated ability to differentiate into several different adult cell types, and they also fail to form tumors in laboratory animals.

A previous study of AFSCs showed that if these stem cells were grown in culture with heart muscle cells from newly born rats, the AFSCs began to express heart-specific genes. While the AFSCs did not become full-fledged heart muscle cells, they began to differentiate in that direction.

Yang Gao and others in the laboratory of Jeffrey G. Jacot at Rice University tried this same experiment with human heart cells. They used a specific set of cell culture conditions that prevent the AFSCs from fusing with the heart cells, because the fusion of two cells can deceive researchers into thinking that the stem cells have actually become heart cells when in fact they have not.

Jacot and his coworkers discovered that when human AFSC made contact with human heart cells, they began to express proteins normally found in heart muscle that help them contract. One of these proteins, cardiac troponin T (cTnT), was definitely expressed in human AFSCs, even though this protein is rather specific to heart muscle cells. cTnT is also one of the proteins released into the bloodstream after a heart attack.  Further investigation uncovered absolutely no evidence of cell fusion. Thus when AFSCs touch human heart cells, they begin to make some heart-specific proteins.

Cardiac Troponin

Jacot and his group did an additional experiment. They tried culturing the human AFSCs on one side of the porous membrane and human heart cells on the other side. These conditions allow minimal contact between cells, but still exposes them the anything the cells might be secreting. Under these culture conditions, human AFSCs still showed a statistically significant increase in cTnT expression compared to culture conditions that without contact between the two cell types.  However, human AFSCs grown in the present of human heart cells still did not express the calcium modulating proteins that are so important for regulating heart muscle contraction. Additionally, the cells and did not have functional or morphological characteristics of mature heart muscle cells.

These data suggest that contact between heart cells and human AFSCs is a necessary but not sufficient condition to drive AFSCs to differentiate into heart cells. However, touching heart cells gets AFSCs part of the way. Maybe further research will provide other cues that will push these remarkable cells the rest of the way.

Amniotic Fluid Stem Cells Aid Kidney Transplantation Success in a Pig Model

When a kidney patient receives a new kidney, the donated kidney undergoes a brief loss of blood supply followed by a restoration of the blood supply. This phenomenon is called ischemia/reperfusion (IR), and IR tends to cause cell death, followed by rather extensive scarring. Tissue scarring is called tissue fibrosis and a scarred kidney can lead to so-called transplant dysfunction, which means that the transplanted kidney does not work terrible well, and this can cause transplant failure.

Previous studies in laboratory rodents have shown that mesenchymal stem cells from amniotic fluid (afMSCs) are beneficial in protecting against transplant-induced fibrosis (Perin L, et al. PLoS One 2010;5:e9357; Hauser PV, et al. Am J Pathol 2010;177:2011-2021).

Now a research group at INSERM, France led by Thierry Hauet has developed a pig-based model of kidney autotransplantation that is comparable to the human situation with regards to the structure of the kidney and the damage that results from renal ischemia (for papers, see Jayle C, et al. Am J Physiol Renal Physiol 2007; 292: F1082-1093; and Rossard L, et al. Curr Mol Med 2012; 12: 502-505). On the strength of these previous experiments, Hauet’s group has published a new paper in Stem Cells Translational Medicine in which they report that porcine afMSCs can protect against IR-related kidney injuries in pigs.

Hauet and others showed that porcine afMSCs could be easily collected at birth and cultured. These cells showed the ability to differentiate into fat, and bone cells, made many of the same cell surface markers as other types of mesenchymal stem cells (e.g., CD90, CD73, CD44, and CD29), but showed a diminished ability to differentiate into blood vessel cells. When afMSCs are added to extirpated kidneys during the reperfusion (reoxygenation) process in an “in vitro” (fancy way of saying “in a culture dish”) model of organ-preservation, these stem cells significantly increased the survival of blood vessel (endothelial) cells. Endothelial cells are one of the main targets of ischemic injury, and the added cells bucked up these endothelial cells and rescued them from programmed cell death. In addition to these successes, Hauet and others showed that adding intact porcine afMSCs was not necessary, since addition of the culture medium used to grow the afMSCs (conditioned medium or CM) also rescued kidney endothelial cell death. The afMSC-treated kidneys survived because they had significantly larger numbers of blood vessels, and this seems to be the main factor that causes the extirpated kidney to survive intact.

While these experiments were successful, Hauet and others know that unless they were able to show that these cells improved kidney transplant outcomes in a living animal, their research would not be deemed clinically relevant. Therefore, Hauet and others injected afMSCs into the renal artery of pigs that had received a kidney transplant six days after the transplant. IR injuries following kidney transplants led to increased serum creatinine levels, but those pigs that had been infused with afMSCs showed reduced creatinine levels and lower protein levels in their urine (proteinuria). In fact, seven days after the stem cell infusion, the urine creatinine and protein levels had returned to pre-transplant levels. Three months after the transplant, the pigs were put down, and then the kidneys were subjected to tissue analyses. Microscopic examination of tissue slices from these kidneys showed that afMSC injection preserved the structural integrity of microscopic details of the kidneys and reduced the signs of inflammation. Control animals that were not treated with afMSCs showed disruption of the microscopic structures of the kidneys and extensive inflammation and scarring. Also, because the kidney controls blood chemistry, a comparison of the blood chemistries of these two groups of animals showed that the blood chemistries of the afMSC-treated animals were normal as opposed to the control animals.

Amniotic Fluid Stem Cells Aid Kidney Transplantation in Porcine Model

Molecular analyses also showed a whole host of pro-blood vessel molecules in the kidneys of the afMSC-treated pigs. VEGFA (pro-angiogenic growth factor), and Ang1 (capillary structure strengthening and maintenance of vessel stability), proteins were increased in the kidneys of afMSC animals compared to control animals. Thus the infused stem cells increased the expression of pro-blood vessel molecules, which led to the formation of larger quantities of blood vessels, reduced cell death and decreased inflammation.

These findings demonstrate the beneficial effects of infused afMSCs on kidney transplant. Since afMSCs are easy to isolate and grow in culture, secrete proangiogenic and growth factors, and can differentiate into many cell lineages, including renal cells (see Perin L, et al. Cell Prolif 2007; 40: 936-948; De Coppi P, et al. Nat Biotechnol 2007; 25: 100-106; and In ‘t Anker PS, et al. Stem Cells 2004;22:1338-1345). This makes these cells a viable candidate for clinical application. This study also highlights pigs as a preclinical model as a powerful tool in the assessment of stem cell-based therapies in organ transplantation.

Radio Interview About my New Book

I was interviewed by the campus radio station (89.3 The Message) about my recently published book, The Stem Cell Epistles,

Stem Cell Epistles

It has been archived here. Enjoy.