Interleukin-17A Augments Mesenchymal Stem Cell Function


One of the biggest problems with organ transplantations is that the immune system can reject the transplanted tissue. Transplant rejection requires the patient to go through another traumatic surgery, and if another organ is not available, then they might very well die. Is there a way to reduce organ rejection?

Our bodies have on our cell surfaces a series of “bar codes” that are the result of “Major Histocompatibility Antigens” or MHC proteins. These proteins are encoded by genes that vary extensively. Therefore, each person has a distinct combination of cell surface proteins that decorate the outside of their cells. If your immune system finds cells that have a different set of MHCs that what you were born with, the immune system, which has been “taught” to accept your own proteins and reject different proteins, will attack and destroy the transplanted tissue. This is known as “Graft vs Host disease” or GvHD. To avoid GvHD, transplant physicians try to find organs that match your own tissue type as closely as possible. However, it is virtually impossible to find organs that perfectly match your own. Even if the patient is given anti-rejection drugs, sometimes the immune system begins to reject the transplanted organ. Is there a way around this?

Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) have the ability to suppress unwanted immune responses. If MSCs are pre-treated with cytokines, they can do this even better. Typically, MSCs are pre-treated with a molecule called interferon-γ. This molecule stimulates MSCs and causes then to suppress the immune response, but it also causes MSCs to express proteins that cause them to be rejected by the immune system. Thus interferon-γ seems to cause problems that prevent the MSCs from working properly.

In a really beautiful paper by Kisha Sivanathan in the Coates lab at the School of Medical Sciences, Adelaide, Australia and her colleagues, showed that pre-treating human MSCs with interleukin-17A did a better job at stimulating MSCs without sensitizing the cells to the immune system.

When Sivanathan and her co-workers treated human bone marrow-derived MSC with interleukin-17A, this molecule enhanced the ability of MSCs to suppress the immune response without making the MSCs subjects for rejection by the immune system.  These interleukin-17A-treate MSCs (MSC-17s) showed no induction or upregulation of molecules that the immune system reacts against (MHC class I, MHC class II, and T cell costimulatory molecule CD40), and the the interleukin-17A-treated MSCs maintained normal MSC morphology and made all the common MSC markers.

When MSC-17s were placed in culture with activated human T cells, the MSCs-17s potently suppressed T cell proliferation.  Additionally, MSC-17s prevented activated T-cells from making the whole cocktail of molecules they normally make once they are activated.

Not all T-cells are created equal. There is a group of T-cells called “regulator T-cells” or T-regs for short. T-regs tend to down regulate the immune response. It turns out that MSCs-17s turn on T-regs and stimulate them to potently suppress T-cell activation. They do this without inducing immunogenicity in the MSCs.

Thus, pre-treating MSCs with interleukin-17A represents a superior way for stimulate MSCs to suppress T cell activity in clinical situations.  Dr. Coates and his colleagues are hopeful that this protocol can be the subject of clinical trials in the near future.

Liver-Based Stem Cells Regenerate Animal Livers


Biologists from the MRC Center for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh have managed to restore liver function in mice by using stem cell transplants to regenerate them. This is the first time such a procedure has succeeded in a living animal.

If liver stem cells from human livers behave the same way as did the mouse cells in this study, then this procedure could potentially be used in place of liver transplants in human patients. This work was published by Professor Stuart Forbes and his colleagues in the journal Nature Cell Biology.

According to Forbes: “Revealing the therapeutic potential of these liver stem cells brings us a step closer to developing stem cell based treatments for patients with liver disease. It will be some time before we can turn this into reality as we will first need to test our approach using human cells. This is much needed as liver disease is a very common cause of death and disability for patients in the UK and the rest of the world.”

Liver cells are also called “hepatocytes” and even though such cells are used for liver transplants, the technology does not yet exist to easily propagate human hepatocytes in the laboratory. In this study, Forbes and his group designed a protocol that could wipe out close to 98% of the cells in the liver of laboratory mice. They genetically engineered mice whose liver cells would delete the MDM2 gene. The MDM2 gene encodes a protein called “E3 ubiquitin ligase,” which is an enzyme that tags junk proteins so that they are properly degrades and recycled. Without a functional E3 ubiquitin ligase, the vast majority of the liver cells underwent programmed cell death. Under these conditions, a group of liver-specific stem cells called hepatic progenitor cells or HPCs were transplanted from healthy mice into the adult mice with severely damaged livers. The transplanted HPCs significantly restored the structure of the liver, regenerating hepatocytes and the cells of the “biliary epithelia,” which compose the ducts that move bile into the gall bladder. This highlights the potency of these transplanted HPCs as liver regenerators. Essentially, after several months, Forbes and his coworkers discovered that major areas of the liver had regrown and these new cells significantly improved the liver’s physiological performance.

Transplanted hepatic progenitor cells can self-renew (yellow, left image) and differentiate into hepatocytes (green) to repair the damaged liver. Image credit: Dr Wei-Yu Lu.
Transplanted hepatic progenitor cells can self-renew (yellow, left image) and differentiate into hepatocytes (green) to repair the damaged liver. Image credit: Dr Wei-Yu Lu.

This is the first time that biologists have succeeded in regenerating an organ in a living animal by using stem cells. Even human cells have significant differences from mouse cells, if these human cells can be manipulated so that they behave in a similar manner to these mouse stem cells, transplanting stem cells or, perhaps administering drugs that activate a patient’s own liver to produce stem cells and regenerate itself, could replace liver transplants.

In a press release, Dr. Rob Buckle, director of science programs for the U.K.’s Medical Research Council, said: “This research has the potential to revolutionize patient care by finding ways of co-opting the body’s own resources to repair or replace damaged or diseased tissue. Work like this, building upon a precise understanding of the underlying human biology and supported by the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform, will give doctors powerful new tools to treat a range of diseases that have no cure, like liver failure, blindness, Parkinson’s disease and arthritis.”

Supercharging Stem Cells for Organ Transplant Patients


A biomedical research team at the University of Adelaide has designed a novel protocol for culturing stem cells that drives the cells to grow faster and become therapeutically stronger. This research was recently published in the international journal, Stem Cells, and is expected to lead to new treatments for transplant patients.

Kisha Sivanathan , a PhD student at the University of Adelaide’s School of Medicine and the Renal Transplant Unit at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, spoke about this exciting breakthrough in stem cell research: “Adult mesenchymal stem cells, which can be obtained from many tissues in the body including bone marrow, are fascinating scientists around the world because of their therapeutic nature and ability to cultivate quickly. These stem cells have been used for the treatment of many inflammatory diseases but we are always looking for ways in which to increase stem cells’ potency,” said Ms. Sivanathan, who is the lead author on this study.

Ms. Sivanathan continued: “Our research group is the first in the world to look at the interaction between mesenchymal stem cells and IL-17, a powerful protein that naturally occurs in the body during times of severe inflammation (such as during transplant rejection). We discovered that when cultured mesenchymal stem cells are treated with IL-17 they grow twice as fast as the untreated stem cells and are more efficient at regulating the body’s immune response.”

Stem cell therapy continues to show very promising signs for transplant patients and according to Ms Sivanathan, the IL-17 treated stem cells could potentially be even more effective at preventing and treating inflammation in transplant recipients. The particular goal in this case is to treat patients who have received organ transplants; and even help control organ rejection in transplant patients.

“Current drugs (immunosuppressant drugs) used to help prevent a patient rejecting a transplant suppress the whole immune system and can cause severe side effects, like cancer. However, stem cell therapy (used in conjunction with immunosuppressant drugs) helps patients ‘accept’ transplants while repairing damaged tissue in the body, resulting in less side effects,” says Ms Sivanathan. “We are yet to undertake clinical trials on the IL-17 treated stem cells but we anticipate that because this treatment produces more potent stem cells, they will be more effective than the untreated stem cells,” she said.

New Tissue Engineering Technique Could Lead to Growing Larger Organs in the Laboratory


Tissue engineers from the Universities of Liverpool and Bristol have invented a novel tissue “scaffold” technology that might one day enable the growth large organs in the laboratory.

According to data generated by these experiments, it is possible to combine cells with a special scaffold to produce living tissues in the laboratory. Hopefully, such organs can then be implanted into patients who need to have a diseased body part replaced. To this point, growing large organs in the laboratory has been impossible because growing larger structures in the laboratory limits the delivery of oxygen supply to the cells in the center of the organ. Therefore, growing tissues in the laboratory has been restricted to small structures that are readily served by the diffusion of oxygen.

In the experiments conducted by the University of Liverpool and Bristol teams, cartilage tissue engineering was employed as a model system for testing strategies for overcoming the oxygen limitation problem.

They manufacture a new class of artificial membrane binding proteins that attached to stem cells. Then they attached to these cell surface proteins the oxygen-carrying protein, myoglobin, before they used the cells to engineer cartilage. Since myoglobin is an oxygen-storage molecule, it will bind oxygen and provide a reservoir of oxygen for cells that cells can access when the oxygen in the scaffold drops to dangerously low levels.

Professor Anthony Hollander, Head of the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology, said: “We have already shown that stem cells can help create parts of the body that can be successfully transplanted into patients, but we have now found a way of making their success even better. Growing large organs remains a huge challenge but with this technology we have overcome one of the major hurdles. Creating larger pieces of cartilage gives us a possible way of repairing some of the worst damage to human joint tissue, such as the debilitating changes seen in hip or knee osteoarthritis or the severe injuries caused by major trauma, for example in road traffic accidents or war injuries.”

These results could expand the possibilities in tissue engineering, not only in cartilage, but also for other tissues such as cardiac muscle or bone. This new methodology in which a normal protein is converted into a membrane binding protein to which helpful molecules can be attached, is likely to pave the way for the development of a wide range of new biotechnologies.

Dr Adam Perriman, from the University of Bristol, added: “From our preliminary experiments, we found that we could produce these artificial membrane binding proteins and paint the cells without affecting their biological function. However, we were surprised to discover that we could deliver the necessary quantity to the cells to supplement their oxygen requirements. It’s like supplying each cell with its own scuba tank, which it can use to breathe from when there is not enough oxygen in the local environment.”

Previous work by Hollander’s group includes the development of a method of creating cartilage cells from stem cells. This method helped make the first successful transplant of a tissue-engineered trachea, which utilized the patient’s own stem cells, possible.

This work appeared in the paper, “Artificial membrane-binding proteins stimulate oxygenation of stem cells during engineering of large cartilage tissue,” which was published in Nature Communications.

Multipotent Adult Progenitor Cells for Immunomodulation after Liver Transplantation


Mesenchymal stem cells and multipotent adult progenitor cells (MAPCs) have received a good deal of discussion by scientists as agent for solid organ transplant recipients. Why? Because these cells, with their ability to suppress unwanted immune responses might be able to reduce the need for drugs that suppress the immune system, which have extensive side effects.

The study under discussion today is the clinical course of the first patient of the phase I, dose-escalation safety and feasibility study, MiSOT-I (Mesenchymal Stem Cells in Solid Organ Transplantation Phase I).

The patient received a living-related liver graft, each patient was given one intraportal injection (injection into the portal vein) and one intravenous infusion of third-party MAPC in combination with a low-dose of an anti-tissue-rejection drug.

The results so far are still coming in, but it seems that the administration of the cells is easy and is technically feasible. How well did the patients tolerate them? Quite well it turns out. There was no evidence of acute toxicity associated with infusions of the MAPCs. Also, there was some indication that the patient’s white blood cells were less reactive to foreign substances. However, it is difficult to make definitive statements about the efficacy of this treatment at this time.

Recruitment and follow-up of participants in the MiSOT-I trial continue, and completion of the study is currently projected for autumn 2016.

Growing Human Esophagus Tissue from Human Cells


Tracy Grikscheit of the Saban Research Institute of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and her colleagues have successfully grown a tissue engineered esophagus on a relatively simple biodegradable scaffold after seeding it with the appropriate stem and progenitor cells.

Progenitor cells have the ability to differentiate into specific cell types and can migrate to a particular target tissue. Their differentiation potential depends on the parent cell type from which they descended and their “niche” or local surroundings. The scaffold upon which these cells were seeded is composed of a simple polymer, but interestingly, several different combinations of cell types were able to generate a replacement organ that worked well when transplanted into laboratory mice.

“We found that multiple combinations of cell populations allowed subsequent formation of engineered tissue. Different progressive cells can find the right “partner” cell in order to grow into specific esophageal cell types; such as epithelium, muscle or nerve cells, and without the need for exogenous growth factors. This means that successful tissue engineering of the esophagus is simpler than we previously thought,” said Grikscheit.

Videos published the paper show a network of muscle cells properly wired with nerves that properly self-organizes whose muscles spontaneously contract.  Such structures are called an esophageal organoid unit (EOU) in culture. Spontaneous contraction is observed within these EOUs.

This study could be the impetus for clinical procedures that can treat children born with portions of their esophagus missing. Since the esophagus carries liquids and food to the stomach from the mouth, it is a vitally important part of the body.

This protocol, could also be applied to patients who have suffered from esophageal cancer and had to have their esophagus removed. Esophageal cancer is one of the fastest growing types of cancer in the United States to date. Alternatively, people who have accidentally swallowed caustic liquids may also benefit from this type of esophageal repair.

This simple scaffold made of a polyglycolic acid/poly-L-lactic acid and coated with the protein collagen is inexpensive and versatile and completely sufficient for the growth of tissue-engineered esophagi from human cells, according to this study. When established in culture, this system can also serve as a model system to study the cell dynamics and physiology of the esophagus.

A deeper understanding of how esophageal cells behave in response to injury and how various donor cells could potentially expand the pool of potential donor cells for engineered tissue.

Even though this technique has only been tested in animals to date, fine-tuning of this technique might very well ready it for clinical trials in the future.

Mesenchymal Stem Cells Assist Kidney Transplants in Cats


Dr. Chad Schmiedt, a veterinary surgeon from the University of Georgia (UGA) Veterinary Teaching Hospital, and his colleagues have used mesenchymal stem cells from the fat of cats to optimize the acceptance of a new kidney in cats.

The recipient of this kidney transplant was a four-year-old flame point Siamese male cat named Arthur. Arthur’s owners brought him from Virginia to the University of Georgia after he was diagnosed with chronic renal failure about a year ago. Two other veterinary hospitals declined to operate on Arthur, since they did not deem this cat an optimal candidate for a kidney transplant. As it turns out, Arthur has trouble absorbing cyclosporine, which is the anti-rejection drug used to prevent the recipient of the kidney transplant from rejecting it.

Arthur
Arthur

In his initial consultation with Arthur’s owners, Schmiedt had the idea of using adult feline stem cells as a part of Arthur’s immunosuppressive protocol. There was precedent for this, since a cat that was operated on at University of Georgia Veterinary Teaching Hospital in 2013 had received a kidney transplant with doses of its own mesenchymal stem cells to prevent rejection of the transplanted organ. This cat was doing well one year after surgery.

“To the best of my knowledge, UGA is the only veterinary facility in the world to use adult stem cells in feline kidney transplantation,” said Schmiedt, who actually heads UGA’s feline kidney transplant program.”

Schmiedt continued: “We used feline adult stem cells in one other transplant that we did last year. A study published in 2012 found that the use of MSCs during renal transplant surgery i humans lowered the risk of acute organ rejection, decreased the risk of infection, and the patients had better estimated renal function one year after surgery.”

Mesenchymal stem cells can be harvested fat, bone marrow, and umbilical cord or placenta. Before the transplant surgery, Schmiedt isolated mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) from Arthur’s fat and the UGA Regenerative Medicine Service grew the stem cells from the fat sample for use in Arthur after his surgery.

Arthur has his kidney transplant on May 15, 2014. The first surgery harvests a kidney from the donor cat (named Joey) and the second surgery transplants the donated kidney into Arthur. The UGA transplant program for cats requires that the donor cat be adopted by the recipient family’s family, which means that Joey and Arthur will become lifelong playmates.

“Cat owners who seek kidney transplants for their sick cats have to be very dedicated,” said Schmiedt. “They will give their car medication twice a day for the rest of its life. They also must be willing to take their cats to the veterinarian for frequent check-ups… a significant amount of time and expense is involved in keeping the recipient and donor cats healthy. But cat lovers who will go to this extent are willing to extend this kind of care to all cats they own.”

Apparently, Joey will be joined by Arthur and five other felines as well.

Stem cells do not replace the need for antirejection medication, and since Arthur’s body poorly absorbs cyclosporine, he will need to take a second antirejection drug as well called mycophenolate. Schmiedt, however, and his colleague stem cell scientist Dr. John Peroni sees MSCs making an important contribution to transplant medicine: “MSCs in veterinary species have been primarily used to treat musculo-skeletal injury – problems with bones, tendons, and joints – and those are our most frequent uses here at the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine. But there is good evidence to support using stem cells to modulate the immune system and regulate inflammation. So, the transplant setting might be another optimal use for these types of stem cells.”

In order to access the efficacy of MSCs in a transplant setting, controlled studies must be done. It is clear that transplanted MSCs do not improve kidney function, but they do seem to slow down the progression of kidney disease. Schmiedt thinks that benefits to patients are possible: “The only down side is harvesting the cells seven to 10 days ahead of the surgery, which adds to the cost of transplant procedure.”

Adaptation of this procedure to animals could smooth the path to making this procedure readily available in humans as well.

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.

Enzyme Helps Stem Cells Improve Recovery From Limb Injury


Ischemia refers to the absence of oxygen in a tissue or organ. Ischemia can cause cells to die and organs to fail and protecting cells, tissues and organs from ischemia-based damaged is an important research topic.

Perfusion refers to the restoration of the blood flow to an organ or tissue that had experienced a cessation of blood flow for a period of time. Even though the restoration of circulation is far preferable to ischemia, perfusion has its own share of side effects. For example, perfusion heightens cells death and inflammation and this can greatly exacerbate the physical condition of the patient after a heart attack, traumatic limb injury, or organ donation.

“Think about trying to hold onto a nuclear power plant after you unplug the electricity and cannot pump water to cool it down,” said Jack Yu, Chief of Medical College of Georgia’s Section of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. “All kinds of bad things start happening,”

Earlier studies in the laboratory of Babak Baban have shown that stem cells can improve new blood vessel growth and turn down the severe inflammation after perfusion (see Baban, et al., Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2012 Dec;303(11):R1136-46 and Mozaffari MS, Am J Cardiovasc Dis. 2013 Nov 1;3(4):180-96). Baban is an immunologist in the Medical College of Georgia and College of Dental Medicine at Georgia Regents University.

The new study from the Baban laboratory shows that an enzyme called indolamine 2,3,-dioxygenase or IDO can regulate inflammation during perfusion. IDO is widely known to generate immune tolerance and dampen the immune response in the developing embryo and fetus, but it turns out that stem cells also make this enzyme.

In their study, Including IDO with bone marrow-derived stem cells increased the healing efficiency of injected stem cells.

 Treatment Effect on Toe Spread Ratio Averages (48–72 hours after treatment). The outcome of stem cell (SC) therapy indicates that IDO may improve recovery. IDO-KO mice treated with SC demonstrated an accelerated recovery compared with IDO-KO treated with PBS (p-value <0.05). However, the WT mice treated with SC showed the greatest recovery of intrinsic paw function when expressed as a ratio comparing it to the non-injured paw (p-value = 0.027). Functional recovery from ischemia-reperfusion (IR) injury in the different treatment groups was measured, using a modified version of walking track analysis. For each subject, toe spread was measured in the IR limb (Ti) and control contralateral limb (Tc). The ratio of the toe spread in the injured limb (Ti) to the control limb (Tc) was then calculated by Ti/Tc. A ratio of 1 indicates 100% recovery or equal width and thus normal intrinsic function. When comparing the WT group treated with stem cells to those treated with PBS, a 45% increase in recovery was seen demonstrating the efficacy of stem cell therapy alone in the presence of an environment where IDO expression is present. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095720.g001
Treatment Effect on Toe Spread Ratio Averages (48–72 hours after treatment).
The outcome of stem cell (SC) therapy indicates that IDO may improve recovery. IDO-KO mice treated with SC demonstrated an accelerated recovery compared with IDO-KO treated with PBS (p-value <0.05). However, the WT mice treated with SC showed the greatest recovery of intrinsic paw function when expressed as a ratio comparing it to the non-injured paw (p-value = 0.027). Functional recovery from ischemia-reperfusion (IR) injury in the different treatment groups was measured, using a modified version of walking track analysis. For each subject, toe spread was measured in the IR limb (Ti) and control contralateral limb (Tc). The ratio of the toe spread in the injured limb (Ti) to the control limb (Tc) was then calculated by Ti/Tc. A ratio of 1 indicates 100% recovery or equal width and thus normal intrinsic function. When comparing the WT group treated with stem cells to those treated with PBS, a 45% increase in recovery was seen demonstrating the efficacy of stem cell therapy alone in the presence of an environment where IDO expression is present.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095720.g001

Also indicators of inflammation, swelling, and cell death decreased in animals that received bone marrow-derived stem cell injections and had IDO.  Baban’s group also showed that the injected stem cells increased endogenous expression of IDO in the perfused tissues.

BMDScs can enhance IDO and regulatory T cells while reducing inflammatory cytokines in the hind limb IR injury. Immunohistochemical analysis of paraffin embedded tissues from murine model with IRI of hind limb showed that treating the animals with BMDSCs in an IDO sufficient microenvironment first: increased IDO and FOXP3 expression (panels A and B, red arrows), while decreased the inflammatory cytokines, IL-17 and IL-23 (panels C and D). Anti inflammatory cytokine, IL-10, was increased as demonstrated in panel E. All together, these analysis suggest a potential therapeutic role for BMDSCs, re-enforced by possible IDO dependent mechanisms. All pictures are 400X magnification
BMDScs can enhance IDO and regulatory T cells while reducing inflammatory cytokines in the hind limb IR injury.
Immunohistochemical analysis of paraffin embedded tissues from murine model with IRI of hind limb showed that treating the animals with BMDSCs in an IDO sufficient microenvironment first: increased IDO and FOXP3 expression (panels A and B, red arrows), while decreased the inflammatory cytokines, IL-17 and IL-23 (panels C and D). Anti inflammatory cytokine, IL-10, was increased as demonstrated in panel E. All together, these analysis suggest a potential therapeutic role for BMDSCs, re-enforced by possible IDO dependent mechanisms. All pictures are 400X magnification

Baban thinks that even though these experiments were performed in mice, because mice tend to be a rather good model system for limb perfusion/ischemia, these results might be applicable in the clinic.  “We don’t want to turn off the immune system, we want to turn it back to normal,” said Baban

According to Baban’s collaborator, Jack Yu, even a short period of inadequate blood supply and nutrients results in the rapid accumulation of destructive acidic metabolites, reactive oxygen species (also known as free radicals), and cellular damage.  The power plant of the cell, small structures called the mitochondria, tend to be one of the earliest casualties of ischemia/perfusion.  Since mitochondria require oxygen to make a chemical called ATP, which is the energy currency in cells, a lack of oxygen makes the mitochondria leaky, swollen and dysfunctional.

“The mitochondria are very sick,” said Yu. ” When blood flow is restored, it can put huge additional stress on sick powerhouses.  “They start to leak things that should not be outside the mitochondria.”

Without adequate energy production and a cellular power plant that leaks, the cells fill with toxic byproducts that cause the cells to commit a kind of cellular hari-kari.  Inflammation is a response to dying cells, since the role of inflammation is to remove dead or dying cells, but inflammation can give the coup de grace to cells that are already on the edge.  Therefore, inflammation can worsen the problem of cell death.

Even though these results were applied to limb ischemia perfusion, Baban and his colleagues think that their results are applicable to other types of ischemia perfusion events, such as heart attacks and deep burns.  Yu, for example, has noticed that in the case of burn patients, the transplantation of new tissue into areas that have undergone ischemia perfusion can die off even while the patient is still in the operating room.

“It cuts across many individual disease conditions,”  said Yu.  Transplant centers already are experimenting with pulsing donor organs to prevent reperfusion trauma.

The next experiments will include determining if more is better.  That is, if giving more stem cells will improve the condition of the injured animal.  In these experiments, which were published in the journal PLoS One, only one stem cell dose was given.  Also, IDO-enhancing drugs will be examined for their ability to prevent reperfusion damage.

Even though stem cells are not given to patients in hospitals after reperfusion, stem cell-based treatments are being tested for their ability to augment healing after reperfusion.  Presently, physicians reestablish blood flow and then give broad-spectrum antibiotics.  The results are inconsistent.  Hopefully, this work by Baban and others will pave the road for future work that leads to human clinical trials.

Prostaglandin E Switches Endoderm Cells From Pancreas to Liver


The gastrointestinal tract initially forms as a tube inside the embryo. Accessory digestive organs sprout from this tube in response to inductive signals from the surrounding mesoderm. Both the pancreas and the liver form at about the same time (4th week after fertilization) and at about the same place in the embryonic gut (the junction between the foregut and the midgut).

Pancreatic development

The pancreas forms as ventral and dorsal outgrowths that eventually fuse together when the gut rotates. The liver forms from the “hepatic diverticulum” that grows from the gut about 23-26 days after fertilization. These liver bud cells work with surrounding tissues to form the liver.

Liver development

What determines whether an endodermal cell becomes a liver or pancreatic precursor cell?

Wolfram Goessling and Trista North from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) have identified a gradient of the molecule prostaglandin E (PGE) in zebrafish embryos that acts as a liver/pancreas switch.

Postdoctoral researcher Sahar Nissim in the Goessling laboratory has uncovered how PGE toggles endodermal cells between the liver-pancreas fate. Nissim has shown that endodermal cells exposed to more PGE become liver cells and those exposed to less PGE become pancreas. This is the first time that prostaglandins have been reported as the factor that can switch cell identities from one fate to another.

After completing these experiments, HSCI scientists collaborated with colleague Richard Mass to determine if their PGE-mediated cell fate switch also occurred in mammals. Here again, Richard Sherwood from the Mass established that mouse endodermal cells became liver if exposed to PGE and pancreas if exposed to less PGE.  Sherwood also demonstrated that PGE enhanced liver growth and regeneration.

Goessling become interested in PGE in 2005, when a chemical screen identified PGE as an agent that amplified blood stem cell populations in zebrafish embryos. Goessling that transitioned this work to human patients, and a phase 1b clinical trial that uses PGE to increase umbilical cord blood transplants has just been completed.

PGE might be useful for instructing pluripotent human stem cells that have been differentiated into endodermal cells to form completely functional, mature liver cells that can be used to treatment patients with liver disease.

Kidney Tubular Cells Formed from Stem Cells


A collaborative effort between several research teams has successfully directed stem cells to differentiate into kidney tubular cells. This is a significant advance that could hasten the day when stem cell-based treatments are used to treat kidney failure.

Chronic kidney disease is a major global public health problem. Unfortunately, once patients progress to kidney failure, their treatment options are limited to dialysis and kidney transplantation. Regenerative medicine, whose goal is to rebuild or repair tissues and organs, might offer a promising alternative.

A team of researchers from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (Cambridge, Mass.), Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Boston) and Keio University School of Medicine (Tokyo) that included Albert Lam, M.D., Benjamin Freedman, Ph.D. and Ryuji Morizane, M.D., Ph.D., has been diligently developing strategies for the past five years to develop strategies to direct human pluripotent stem cells (human embryonic stem cells or hESCs and human induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs) to differentiate into kidney cells for the purposes of kidney regeneration.

“Our goal was to develop a simple, efficient and reproducible method of differentiating human pluripotent stem cells into cells of the intermediate mesoderm, the earliest tissue in the developing embryo that is fated to give rise to the kidneys,” said Dr. Lam. Lam also noted that these intermediate mesoderm cells would be the “starting blocks” for deriving more specific kidney cells.

Lam and his collaborators discovered a blend of chemicals which, when added to stem cells in a precise sequence, caused the stem cells to turn off their stem cell-specific genes and activate those genes found in kidney cells. Furthermore, the activation of the kidney-specific genes occurred in the same order that they turn on during embryonic kidney development.

At E10.5, the metanephric mesenchyme (red) comprises a unique subpopulation of the nephrogenic cord (yellow). Expression of the Glial-derived neurotrophic factor (Gdnf) is resticted to the metanephric mesenchyme by the actions of transcriptional activators, secreted factors, and inhibitors. GDNF binds the Ret receptor and promotes the formation of the ureteric bud, an outgrowth from the nephric duct (blue). Ret initially depends upon the Gata3 transcription factor for its expression in the nephric duct. Spry1 acts as an intracellular inhibitor of the Ret signal transduction pathway. BMP4 inhibits GDNF signaling and is in turn inhibited by the Grem1 binding protein. At 11.5, the ureteric bud has branched, forming a T-shaped structure. Each ureteric bud tip is surrounded by a cap of condensed metanephric mesenchyme. Reciprocal signaling between the cap mesenchyme and ureteric bud, as well as signals coming from stromal cells (red), maintain expression of Ret in the bud tips and Gdnf in the cap mesenchyme. Nephrons are derived from cap mesenchyme cells that form pretubular aggregates and then renal vesicles on either side of each ureteric bud tip. Wnt9b and Wnt4 induce nephron formation and are necessary for maintaining ureteric bud branching. The Six2 transcription factor prevents ectopic nephron formation. BMP7 promotes survival of the cap mesenchyme. Not all genes implicated in metanephros formation are shown for clarity (see text for further details). Green arrows indicate the ligand-receptor interaction between GDNF and Ret. Black arrows indicate the epistasis between genes but in most cases it is not known if the interactions are direct. T-shaped symbols indicate inhibitory interactions.
At E10.5, the metanephric mesenchyme (red) comprises a unique subpopulation of the nephrogenic cord (yellow). Expression of the Glial-derived neurotrophic factor (Gdnf) is resticted to the metanephric mesenchyme by the actions of transcriptional activators, secreted factors, and inhibitors. GDNF binds the Ret receptor and promotes the formation of the ureteric bud, an outgrowth from the nephric duct (blue). Ret initially depends upon the Gata3 transcription factor for its expression in the nephric duct. Spry1 acts as an intracellular inhibitor of the Ret signal transduction pathway. BMP4 inhibits GDNF signaling and is in turn inhibited by the Grem1 binding protein. At 11.5, the ureteric bud has branched, forming a T-shaped structure. Each ureteric bud tip is surrounded by a cap of condensed metanephric mesenchyme. Reciprocal signaling between the cap mesenchyme and ureteric bud, as well as signals coming from stromal cells (red), maintain expression of Ret in the bud tips and Gdnf in the cap mesenchyme. Nephrons are derived from cap mesenchyme cells that form pretubular aggregates and then renal vesicles on either side of each ureteric bud tip. Wnt9b and Wnt4 induce nephron formation and are necessary for maintaining ureteric bud branching. The Six2 transcription factor prevents ectopic nephron formation. BMP7 promotes survival of the cap mesenchyme. Not all genes implicated in metanephros formation are shown for clarity (see text for further details). Green arrows indicate the ligand-receptor interaction between GDNF and Ret. Black arrows indicate the epistasis between genes but in most cases it is not known if the interactions are direct. T-shaped symbols indicate inhibitory interactions.

The investigators were able to differentiate both hESCs and human iPSCs into cells that expressed the PAX2 and LHX1 genes, which are two key elements of the intermediate mesoderm; the developmental tissue from which the kidney develops. The iPSCs were derived by reprogramming fibroblasts obtained from adult skin biopsies into pluripotent cells. The differentiated cells expressed multiple genes found in intermediate mesoderm and spontaneously produced tubular structures that expressed those genes found in mature kidney tubules.

The researchers could then differentiate the intermediate mesoderm cells into kidney precursor cells that expressed the SIX2, SALL1 and WT1 genes. These three genes designate an embryonic tissue called the “metanephric cap mesenchyme.” Metanephric cap mesenchyme is a critical tissue for kidney differentiation. During kidney development, the metanephric cap mesenchyme contains a population of progenitor cells that give rise to nearly all of the epithelial cells of the kidney (epithelial cells or cells in a sheet, generate the lion’s share of the tubules of the kidney).

Metanephric cap mesenchyme is is red
Metanephric cap mesenchyme is is red

The cells also continued to behave like kidney cells when transplanted into adult or embryonic mouse kidneys. This gives further hope that these investigators might one day be able to create kidney tissues that could function in a patient and would be fully compatible with the patient’s immune system.

The findings are published online in Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

Scientists Generate “Mini-kidney” Structures from Human Stem Cells


Kidney Disease represents a major and unsolved health issue worldwide. Once damaged by disease, kidneys rarely recover their original level of function, and this highlights the urgent need for better knowledge of kidney development and physiology.

Now, a team of researchers led by scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has developed a novel platform to study kidney diseases. This new platform should open new avenues for the future application of regenerative medical strategies to restore kidney function.

For the first time, the Salk researchers have generated three-dimensional kidney structures from human stem cells. These findings were reported November 17, 2013 in Nature Cell Biology, and they suggest new ways to study the development and diseases of the kidneys and to discover and test new drugs that target human kidney cells.

Scientists had created precursors of kidney cells using stem cells as recently as this past summer, but the Salk team was the first to coax human stem cells into forming three-dimensional cellular structures similar to those found in our kidneys.

“Attempts to differentiate human stem cells into renal cells have had limited success,” says senior study author Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and holder of the Roger Guillemin Chair. “We have developed a simple and efficient method that allows for the differentiation of human stem cells into well-organized 3D structures of the ureteric bud (UB), which later develops into the collecting duct system.”

The Salk findings demonstrate for the first time that pluripotent stem cells capable of differentiating into the many cells and tissue types that make up the body can be induced to differentiate into those cells found in the ureteric bud, which is an early developmental structure of the kidneys. Furthermore, these same cells can differentiate further into three-dimensional structures in organ cultures. Ureteric bud cells form the early stages of the human urinary and reproductive organs during development and later develop into a conduit for urine drainage from the kidneys. Izpisua Belmonte’s research group accomplished this with both human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), human cells from the skin that have been reprogrammed into their pluripotent state.

Kidney development

After generating iPSCs that demonstrated pluripotent properties and were able to differentiate into mesoderm, the embryonic germ cell layer from which the kidneys develop, the Salk Institute team used growth factors known to be essential during the natural development of our kidneys to culture both iPSCs and embryonic stem cells.  The combination of signals from these growth factors, molecules that guide the differentiation of stem cells into specific tissues, committed the cells to become progenitors that exhibit clear characteristics of renal cells in only four days.

The researchers then guided these cells to further differentiate into organ structures similar to those found in the ureteric bud by culturing them with kidney cells from mice. This demonstrated that the mouse cells were able to provide the appropriate developmental cues to allow human stem cells to form three-dimensional structures of the kidney.

Izpisua Belmonte’s team also tested their protocol on iPSCs from a patient clinically diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic disorder characterized by multiple, fluid-filled cysts that can lead to decreased kidney function and kidney failure. They found that their methodology could produce kidney structures from patient-derived iPSCs.

Polycystic kidneys
Polycystic kidneys

Because of the many clinical manifestations of the disease, neither gene- nor antibody-based therapies are realistic approaches for treating PKD. The Salk team’s technique might help circumvent this obstacle and provide a reliable platform for pharmaceutical companies and other investigators studying drug-based therapeutics for PKD and other kidney diseases.

“Our differentiation strategies represent the cornerstone of disease modeling and drug discovery studies,” says lead study author Ignacio Sancho-Martinez, a research associate in Izpisua Belmonte’s laboratory. “Our observations will help guide future studies on the precise cellular implications that PKD might play in the context of kidney development.”

An Efficient Method for Converting Fat Cells to Liver Cells


I have a friend whose wife has systemic lupus erythematosis, and her liver has taken a beating as a result of this disease. She has never had a drop of alcohol for decades and yet she has a liver that looks like the liver of a 70-year-old alcoholic. The scarring of the liver as result of repeated damage and healing has seriously compromised her liver function. She is now a candidate for a liver transplant. Wouldn’t it be nice to simply give her liver cells to heal her liver?

This dream came a little closer to becoming reality in October of this year when scientists at Stanford University developed a fast and efficient way to convert fat cells isolated from routine liposuction into liver cells. Even though these experiments used mice, the stem cells were isolated from human liposuction procedures.

This experiment did not use embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells to generate liver cells. Instead it used adult stem cells from fat.

Fat-based stem cells

The liver builds complex molecules, filters and breaks down waste products and toxic substances that might otherwise accumulate to dangerous concentrations.

The liver, unlike other organs, has a capacity to regenerate itself to a significant extent, but the liver’s regenerative abilities cannot overcome the consequences of acute liver poisoning, or chronic damage to the liver, as a result of hepatitis, alcoholism, or drug abuse.

For example, acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a popular pain-reliever, but abusing acetaminophen can badly damage the liver. About 500 people die each year from abuse of acetaminophen, and some 60,000 emergency-room visits and more than 25,000 hospitalizations annually are due to acetaminophen abuse. Other environmental toxins, such as poisonous mushrooms, contribute more cases of liver damage.

Fortunately, the fat-to-liver protocol is readily adaptable to human patients, according to Gary Peltz, professor of anesthesia and senior author of this study. The procedure takes about nine days, which is easily fast enough to treat someone suffering from acute liver poisoning, who might die within a few weeks without a liver transplant.

Some 6,300 liver transplants are performed annually in he United States, and approximately 16,000 patients are on the waiting list for a liver. Every year more than 1,400 people die before a suitable liver can be found for them.

Even though liver transplantations save the lives of patients, the procedure is complicated, not without risks, and even when successful, is fraught with after effects. The largest problem is the immunosuppressant drugs that live patients must take in order to prevent their immune system from rejecting the transplanted liver. Acute rejection is an ongoing risk in any solid organ transplant, and improvements in immunosuppressive therapy have reduced rejection rates and improved graft survival. However, acute rejection still develops in 25% to 50% of liver transplant patients treated with immunosuppressants. Chronic rejection is somewhat less frequent and is declining and occurs in approximately 4% of adult liver transplant patients.

Peltz said, “We believe our method will be transferable to the clinic, and because the new liver tissue is derived from a person’s own cells, we do not expect that immunosuppressants will be needed.”

Peltz also noted that fat-based stem cells do not normally differentiate into liver cells. However, in 2006, a Japanese laboratory developed a technique for converting fat-based stem cells into induced liver cells (called “i-Heps” for short). This method, however, is inefficient, takes 30 days, and relies on chemical stimulation. In short, this technique would not provide enough material to regenerate a liver.

The Stanford University group built upon the Japanese work and improved it. Peltz’s group used a spherical culture and were able to convert fat-bases stem cells into i-Heps in nine days and with 37% efficiency (the Japanese group only saw a 12% rate). Since the publication of their paper, Peltz said that workers in his laboratory have increased the efficiency to 50%.

Dan Xu, a postdoctoral scholar and the lead author of this study, adapted the spherical culture methodology from early embryonic-stem-cell literature. However, instead of growing on flat surfaces in a laboratory dish, the harvested fat cells are cultured in a liquid suspension in which they form spheroids. Peltz noted that the cells were much happier when they were grown in small spheres.

Once they had enough cells, Peltz and his co-workers injected them into immune-deficient laboratory mice that accept human grafts. These mice were bioengineered in 2007 as a result of a collaboration between Peltz and Toshihiko Nishimura from the Tokyo-based Central Institute for Experimental Animals. These mice had a viral thymidine kinase gene inserted into their genomes and when treated with the drug gancyclovir, the mice experienced extensive liver damage.

After gancyclovir treatment, Peltz and his coworkers injected 5 million i-Heps into the livers of these mice, using ultrasound-guided injection procedures, which is typically used for biopsies.

Four weeks later, the mice expressed human blood proteins and 10-20 percent of the mouse livers were repopulated with human liver cells. Blood tests also showed that the mouse livers, which were greatly damaged previous to the transplantation, were processing nitrogenous wastes properly. Structurally, the mouse livers contained human cells that made human bile ducts, and expressed mature human liver cells.

Other tests established that the i-Heps made from fat-based stem cells were more liver-like than i-Heps made from induced pluripotent stem cells.

Two months are injection of the i-Heps, there was no evidence of tumor formation.

Peltz said, “To be successful, we must regenerate about half of the damaged liver’s original cell count.” With the spherical culture, Peltz is able to produce close to one billion injectable i-Heps from 1 liter of liposuction aspirate. The cell replication that occurs after injection expands that number further to over 100 billion i-Heps.

If this is possible, then this procedure could potentially replace liver transplants. Stanford University’s Office of Technology Licensing has filed a patent on the use of spherical culture for hepatocyte (liver cell) induction. Peltz’s group is optimizing this culture and injection techniques,talking to the US Food and Drug Administration, and gearing up for safety tests on large animals. Barring setbacks, the new method could be ready for clinical trials within two to three years, according the estimations by Peltz.

Repairing Damaged Organs with New Blood Vessel-Making Stem Cells


A damaged organ usually needs to be removed (spleen or single kidney) or a new organ must be transplanted to replace the damaged organ (liver, heart, lungs, kidney). Wouldn’t it be terrific to inject blood vessel-making stem cells and let the organ heal itself? Such a strategy would render organ transplantation obsolete.

Studies by scientists at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York have shown that endothelial cells – the cells that line the inside of blood vessels – can drive the regeneration of organ by releasing beneficial, organ-specific molecules. These organ-specific molecules were identified in a genome-wide screen that uncovered all the genes actively expressed in endothelial cells. Many of these genes found in this screen were previously not known to be expressed in endothelial cells. Researchers also found that organ dictate the structure and function of their own blood vessels and this includes the organ-specific repair molecules they elicit from endothelial cells.

Endothelial_cell

Shahin Rafii, principal investigator of this work, is a professor of genetic medicine and co-director of the medical college’s Ansary Stem Cell Institute and the Tri-SCI Stem Center. Rafii is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

According to Rafii, when an organ in injured, its blood vessels may not have the ability to repair the organ on their own because of the damage to the blood vessels themselves, and the inflammation these same blood vessels might be experiencing.

“Our work suggests that an infusion of engineered endothelial cells could engraft into the injured tissue and acquire the capacity to repair the organ. These studies – along with the first molecule atlas of organ-specific blood vessel cells reported in the Developmental Cell paper (Developmental Cell 26, 204–219, July 29, 2013) – will open up a whole new chapter in translational vascular medicine and will have a major therapeutic application.”

Rafii continued: “Scientists had thought blood vessels in each organ are the same, that they exist to deliver oxygen and nutrients. But they are very different.” According to Rafii, different organs are endowed with blood vessels with unique shape and function and delegated with the difficult task of complying with the metabolic demands of that organ.

In one study from the Rafii lab, nine different tissues were examined, in addition to bone marrow and liver that had undergone a traumatic injury. To examine the blood vessels from each of these tissues, Rafii’s laboratory development a very efficient way to make endothelial cells from embryonic stem cells. Daniel Nolan, the lead author of this work, said that this protocol produced a “a pure population of endothelial cells in a very rapid time frame.”

ECs Derived from hESCs Phenocopy Adult Mouse Tissue-Specific Capillaries (A) Schema of in vitro conditions to support the differentiation and identification of hESC-derived vasculature. hESCs are grown on an E4-ORF1 EC feeder layer and transduced with a VE-Cadherin-Orange reporter gene. VE-Cadherin-Orange+ vascular networks are readily identifiable by day 10. (B) Flow cytometry data depicting the expression of VPR-Orange on hESC-derived CD31+ ECs. These VPR+ ECs have distinct populations based on the expression of either CXCR4 (teal) or CD133 (purple). (C) VPR+CXCR4+CD133− and VPR+CD133+CXCR4− ECs are capable of forming distinct clusters of ECs in hESC cultures. (D) Heat maps of the genes, which were common in their statistically significant differential expression (Benjamini-Hochberg adjusted p < 0.05) between hESC-derived vasculature and adult mouse heart and brain tissues. (E) VPR+CXCR4+CD133− and VPR+CD133+CXCR4− ECs were analyzed for cKit and CD36 levels via flow cytometry. Validation of the higher expression of CD36 and Kit in the CXCR4+ ECs is shown. (F) Heat map of K-Mean clusters depicting the results of de novo motif discovery among non-ECs, CXCR4+VPR+ ECs, and CD133+VPR+ ECs. Candidate binding partners to the motifs are listed.
ECs Derived from hESCs Phenocopy Adult Mouse Tissue-Specific Capillaries.  (A) Schema of in vitro conditions to support the differentiation and identification of hESC-derived vasculature. hESCs are grown on an E4-ORF1 EC feeder layer and transduced with a VE-Cadherin-Orange reporter gene. VE-Cadherin-Orange+ vascular networks are readily identifiable by day 10.  (B) Flow cytometry data depicting the expression of VPR-Orange on hESC-derived CD31+ ECs. These VPR+ ECs have distinct populations based on the expression of either CXCR4 (teal) or CD133 (purple).  (C) VPR+CXCR4+CD133− and VPR+CD133+CXCR4− ECs are capable of forming distinct clusters of ECs in hESC cultures.  (D) Heat maps of the genes, which were common in their statistically significant differential expression (Benjamini-Hochberg adjusted p < 0.05) between hESC-derived vasculature and adult mouse heart and brain tissues.  (E) VPR+CXCR4+CD133− and VPR+CD133+CXCR4− ECs were analyzed for cKit and CD36 levels via flow cytometry. Validation of the higher expression of CD36 and Kit in the CXCR4+ ECs is shown.  (F) Heat map of K-Mean clusters depicting the results of de novo motif discovery among non-ECs, CXCR4+VPR+ ECs, and CD133+VPR+ ECs. Candidate binding partners to the motifs are listed.

From these laboratory-made endothelial cells (ECs), Rafii and his colleagues were able to take snapshots of all the genes expressed in various populations of ECs can compose the different vascular beds of the body. From these studies, Raffi and others discovered that ECs possess specific genes that code for unique growth factors, adhesion molecules, and factors regulating metabolism.

“We knew that these gene products were critical to the health of a particular tissue, but before our study it was not appreciated that these factors originate in the endothelial cells,” said Nolan.

Olivier Elemento, who performed much of the complex computational studies in this paper, noted, “We also found that the healing, or regeneration of tissue, in the liver and in the bone marrow were unexpectedly different – including the repair molecules, known as angiocrine growth factors, that were expressed by the endothelial cells.”

Blood vessels differ among the various organs because the ECs have to constantly adapt to the metabolic, biomechanical, inflammatory, and immunological needs of that particular organ, said Michael Ginsberg, a senior postdoctoral research associate in Rafii’s lab. “And we have now found how endothelial cells have learned to behave differently in each organ and to adjust to the needs of those organs,” he said.

This work from Raffii’s laboratory raises the question as to how ECs have the capacity to adapt to the biological demands of each organ. Is it possible to design “immature” ECs that could allow scientists to identify the means by which particular microenvironmental cues educate these cells to become more specialized endothelial cells?

To address this question, Rafii and his army of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, technicians, and visiting scientists made ECs from mouse embryonic stem cells and discovered that these cells were responsive to microenvironmental cues, and were also transplantable and functional.

Sina Rabbany, adjunct associate professor of genetic medicine and bioengineering at Weill Cornell Medical College said that embryonic stem cell derived ECs are “very versatile, so they can be transplanted into different tissues, become educated by the tissue, and acquire the characteristics of the native endothelial cells.” These ECs can also be grown in the lab into large numbers.

“We now know what it takes to keep these cells healthy, stable, and viable for transplantation,” said Rabbany.

When the ECs made by Rabbany were transplanted into the livers of laboratory mice, they integrated into the host tissue and become indistinguishable from the native tissue. Similar results were observed when these laboratory-derived ECs were transplanted into kidneys.

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Replace Liver Function in Mice


Liver transplants save lives and in the United States there is a shortage of livers for transplantation. Between July 1, 2008 and June 30, 2011, well over 14,601 adult donor livers were recovered and transplanted. Of these livers that were transplanted, many other patients died from liver failure. If there was a way to restore liver function in patients with liver failure without dependence on a liver from a liver donor, then we might be able to extend their lives.

A paper from the laboratory of Hossein Baharvand at the University of Science and Culture in Tehran, Iran provides a step towards doing just that. In this paper, Baharvand and his colleagues used human induced pluripotent stem cells to make hepatocyte-like cells or HLCs. Hepatocyte is a fancy word for a liver cell. These HLCs were then transplanted into the spleen of mice that have damaged livers, and they rescued liver function in these mice.

The liver is a vital organ. It processes molecules absorbed by the digestive system, processes foreign chemicals to make them more easily excreted. It also produces bile, which helps dispose of fat-soluble waste and solubilize fats for degradation in the small intestine during digestion. It also produces blood plasma proteins, cholesterol and special proteins to cholesterol and fat transport, converts excess glucose into glycogen for storage, regulates blood levels of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), processes used hemoglobin to recycle its iron content, converts poisonous ammonia to urea, regulates blood clotting, and helps the body resist infections by producing immune factors and removing bacteria from the bloodstream. Thus without a functioning liver, you are in deep weeds.

Induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs are made from adult cells that have been genetically engineered to de-differentiate into embryonic-like stem cells. They can be grown in culture to large numbers, and can also be differentiated into, potentially, any cell type in the adult body.

In this paper, Baharvand and his colleagues grew human iPSCs in “matrigel,” and then grew them in suspension. Matrigel is gooey and the cells stick to it and grow, and they were grown in matrigel culture for 1 week. After one week, the cells were grown in liquid suspension for 1-2 weeks. The cells have better access to soluble growth factors in liquid culture and tend to grow faster. After this they were grown in a stirred culture (known as a spinner).  This expanded the cells into large numbers for further use.

 Expansion and characterization of human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) in a dynamic suspension culture. (A) Schematic representation of the suspension culture and expansion of human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) from adherent to stirred bioreactor. The cells were transferred to bacterial dishes to adapt to three-dimensional (3D) environment and then transferred into the dynamic phase, stirred flask. (B) Morphology of a tested hiPSC line (hiPSC1) after passage in a stirred suspension bioreactor as monitored by dark-field microscopy. (C) Immunostaining of cross sections of spheroids for OCT4 and TRA-1-81. Scale bar: 50 μm. (D) Flow cytometry analysis and (E) normal karyotype of suspended cells in the bioreactor.
Expansion and characterization of human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) in a dynamic suspension culture. (A) Schematic representation of the suspension culture and expansion of human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) from adherent to stirred bioreactor. The cells were transferred to bacterial dishes to adapt to three-dimensional (3D) environment and then transferred into the dynamic phase, stirred flask. (B) Morphology of a tested hiPSC line (hiPSC1) after passage in a stirred suspension bioreactor as monitored by dark-field microscopy. (C) Immunostaining of cross sections of spheroids for OCT4 and TRA-1-81. Scale bar: 50 μm. (D) Flow cytometry analysis and (E) normal karyotype of suspended cells in the bioreactor.

Getting cells to grow in liquid suspension tends to be a bit of an art form, but these iPSCs grew rather well. Also, the iPSCs were differentiated into definitive endoderm, which is the first step in bringing cells to the liver cell stage. The drug Rapamycin and activin (50 ng / L for those who are interested) were used to bring the growing iPSCs to the definitive endoderm.  The cells expressed all kinds of endoderm-specific genes.  Endoderm is the embryonic germ layer from which the digestive system and its accessory organs forms.

 Induction of hiPSCs into definitive endoderm. (A) Diagrammatic representation of the experimental groups for endoderm induction of hiPSCs in the bacterial dish static suspension, which include rapamycin (Rapa) “priming” and activin A “inducing” phases, and positive control groups of hiPSCs cultured in the absence of Rapa in suspension or adherent cultures in the presence of activin A. (B) Gene expression analysis of hiPSCs induced into endodermal cells. Quantitative reverse transcriptase–polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR) showed no significant differences in SOX17 and FOXA2 [definitive endoderm (DE) markers], and BRA (mesoendoderm marker) in all groups. SOX7 (visceral endoderm marker) was expressed at a low level. Influence of the refreshment strategy of the induction medium on DE formation in suspension cultures by qRT-PCR (C), immunostaining (D), and flow cytometry (E). We compared single (SR), double (DR), and triple (TR) refreshment of induction medium per 24 h for 4 days after Rapa administration in the static suspension of hiPSCs. Scale bar: 100 μm. The target gene expression level in qRT-PCR was normalized to GAPDH and calibrated with (presented relative to) hiPSCs. Data are presented as mean±SD. Statistical analysis as determined by one-way ANOVA with Tukey's post hoc test, n=3 for B, C, and E. *P<0.05, **P<0.01.
Induction of hiPSCs into definitive endoderm. (A) Diagrammatic representation of the experimental groups for endoderm induction of hiPSCs in the bacterial dish static suspension, which include rapamycin (Rapa) “priming” and activin A “inducing” phases, and positive control groups of hiPSCs cultured in the absence of Rapa in suspension or adherent cultures in the presence of activin A. (B) Gene expression analysis of hiPSCs induced into endodermal cells. Quantitative reverse transcriptase–polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR) showed no significant differences in SOX17 and FOXA2 [definitive endoderm (DE) markers], and BRA (mesoendoderm marker) in all groups. SOX7 (visceral endoderm marker) was expressed at a low level. Influence of the refreshment strategy of the induction medium on DE formation in suspension cultures by qRT-PCR (C), immunostaining (D), and flow cytometry (E). We compared single (SR), double (DR), and triple (TR) refreshment of induction medium per 24 h for 4 days after Rapa administration in the static suspension of hiPSCs. Scale bar: 100 μm. The target gene expression level in qRT-PCR was normalized to GAPDH and calibrated with (presented relative to) hiPSCs. Data are presented as mean±SD. Statistical analysis as determined by one-way ANOVA with Tukey’s post hoc test, n=3 for B, C, and E. *P<0.05, **P<0.01.
After the cells went through this culture protocol, they were grown in a stirred liquid culture called a “spinner.” The culture system contain a cocktail of growth factors that differentiated the definitive endoderm cells into HLCs.  The cells formed little spheres that expressed a host of liver-specific genes.

Differentiation of hepatocyte-like cells (HLCs) from hiPSCs in the stirred bioreactor. (A) Stepwise protocol for differentiation of hiPSCs into HLCs. (B) The morphology and cross section of spheroids at day 21. The spheroids in this step were observed as cystic and dense spheroids. Hematoxylin and eosin (H&E) staining of spheroid cross sections indicated cystic and dense epithelioid appearances in the transplant and dense spheroids, respectively. Scale bar: 100 μm. (C) Comparative relative mRNA expression in cystic and dense spheroids normalized to GAPDH and calibrated to undifferentiated hiPSCs. Transplant and dense spheroids expressed more early and late hepatic lineage markers, respectively. Data are presented as mean. n=3. (D) Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) of differentiated cells in dense spheroids at day 21. Nucleus (N), nucleoli (n), mitochondria (M), Golgi apparatus (G), lysosomes (Ly), rough endoplasmic reticuli (arrowhead), glycogen granules (GR), intermediate filaments (CK), tight junctions (TJ), gap junctions (GJ), fascia adherens (FA), junctional complex (JC), microvilli (MV), and bile-like canaliculus (BLC). Scale bar: 1 μm.
Differentiation of hepatocyte-like cells (HLCs) from hiPSCs in the stirred bioreactor. (A) Stepwise protocol for differentiation of hiPSCs into HLCs. (B) The morphology and cross section of spheroids at day 21. The spheroids in this step were observed as cystic and dense spheroids. Hematoxylin and eosin (H&E) staining of spheroid cross sections indicated cystic and dense epithelioid appearances in the transplant and dense spheroids, respectively. Scale bar: 100 μm. (C) Comparative relative mRNA expression in cystic and dense spheroids normalized to GAPDH and calibrated to undifferentiated hiPSCs. Transplant and dense spheroids expressed more early and late hepatic lineage markers, respectively. Data are presented as mean. n=3. (D) Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) of differentiated cells in dense spheroids at day 21. Nucleus (N), nucleoli (n), mitochondria (M), Golgi apparatus (G), lysosomes (Ly), rough endoplasmic reticuli (arrowhead), glycogen granules (GR), intermediate filaments (CK), tight junctions (TJ), gap junctions (GJ), fascia adherens (FA), junctional complex (JC), microvilli (MV), and bile-like canaliculus (BLC). Scale bar: 1 μm.

From the figure above, we can see that these HLCs, not only express liver-specific genes, but when they are examined in the electron microscope they look, for all intents and purposes, like liver cells.  Functional tests of these spheres of HLCs showed that they 1) took up low-density lipoprotein; 2) produced albumin (a major blood plasma protein); 3) expressed cytochrome P450s, which are the major enzymes used to process drugs; 4) produced urea from amino acids, just like real liver cells; 5) accumulated glycogen; 6) and made liver proteins (HNF4a, ALB, etc).

So it looks like liver, quacks like liver, but can it replace liver?  These HLCs were transplanted into the spleen of mice whose livers had been treated with carbon tetrachloride.  Carbon tetrachloride tends to make mincemeat of the liver, and these mice are in trouble, since their livers are toast.  Transplantation of the iPSC-derived HLCs into the spleens of these mice increased their survival rate and decreased the blood levels of liver enzymes that are usually present when there is liver damage.

This paper is significant because the procedure used provides an example of a “scalable” protocol for making large quantities of iPSCs, and their mass differentiation into definitive endoderm and then liver cells,  Because this can potentially provide enough cells to replace a nonfunctional liver, it represents a major step forward in regenerative medicine.

 

Engineered Tissues for Transplantation


Xenotransplantation refers to the transplantation of organs from non-human animals into human patients. Such a procedure can increase the availability of organs for transplantation, but proteins and sugars on the surfaces of animal cells that are not found in human bodies can elicit an immune response against these xenotransplanted organs and tissues. For example, the human immune system recognizes a sugar molecule that coats the surface of pig blood vessels but is absent from human tissues called alpha-1,3-galactose (α-gal). In 2003, David Cooper, who runs the transplantation program at the University of Cape Town Medical School, engineered pigs without the α-1,3-galactosyltransferase gene that produces the α-gal residues. However, there were other problems with pig organs as well.

Tissue engineered organs are grown from a patient’s own cells. Such organs should help increase the availability of organs and avoid the problems of immune rejection that plague the field of xenotransplantation. “Cartilage, skin, and bone are already on the market. Blood vessels are in clinical trials. The progress has been really gratifying,” says Laura Niklason of Yale University.

Such engineered tissues consist of either flat planes or hollow tubes and are relatively simple to produce. Also, they consist of a small number of cell types. However, solid organs, such as the lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys, pose a greater challenge, since they are bigger and contain dozens of cell types. In addition, they have a complex architecture and an extensive network of the most essential component, which are the blood vessels. “Every cell needs to eat and breathe, and each one needs to be close to a source of nutrition and oxygen,” says Joseph Vacanti, who is in charge of the liver transplantation program at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts. Still, Vacanti is optimistic that it should be possible to produce even these complex organs through tissue engineering. “People differ about whether it’ll be achieved in 5 or 100 years, but most people in the field believe that it’s a realistic goal,” he says.

In 2008, Harald Ott of Massachusetts General Hospital and Doris Taylor of the University of Minnesota dramatically demonstrated the potential of organ engineering by growing a beating heart in the laboratory. These know first-hand, the need for organs for transplantation, since as physician-scientists, they often see patients who badly need transplants, but have no available organs for transplantation. To make engineered hearts, they began by using detergents to strip the cells from the hearts of dead rats. This left behind an extracellular matrix (a white, ghostly, heart-shaped frame of connective proteins such as collagen and laminin). Ott and Taylor used this matrix as a scaffold, and they seeded it with cells from newborn rats and incubated it in a bioreactor, which is a vat that provides cells with the right nutrients, and simulates blood flow. Four days later, the muscles of the newly formed heart began contracting, and after eight days, it started to beat.

This technique is extremely labor-intensive and is known as whole organ decellularization. Think of it as knocking down a house’s walls to reveal its frame, and then replastering it anew with different materials. Because the frame is of the same structure as the original organ and retains the complicated three-dimensional architecture of the organ which includes the branching network of blood vessels. Additionally, it also preserves the armamentarium of complex sugars and growth factors that covers the matrix and provides signaling signposts for growing cells. These signals will nudge the cells into the proper shapes and structures. “The matrix really is smart,” says Taylor. “If we put human cells on human heart matrix, they organize in remarkable ways. We can spend the next 20 years trying to understand what’s in a natural matrix and recreate that, or we can take advantage of the fact that nature’s put it together perfectly.”

Ott and Taylor’s groundbreaking feat of tissue engineering has since been duplicated for several other organs, including livers, lungs, and kidneys. Rodent versions of all have been grown in labs, and some have been successfully transplanted into animals. Recellularized organs have even found their way into human patients. Between 2008 and 2011, Paolo Macchiarini from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden fitted nine people with new tracheas. These tracheas were built from their own cells grown on decellularized scaffolds. Most of these operations were successful (although three of the scaffolds partially collapsed for unknown reasons after implantation). Decellularization has one big drawback: it still depends on having an existing organ, either from a donor or an animal. These disadvantages led Macchiarini to devise a different approach. In March 2011, he transplanted the first trachea built on an artificial, synthetic polymer scaffold. His patient was an Eritrean man named Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene, who had advanced tracheal cancer and had been given 6 months to live. “He’s now doing well. He’s employed, and his family have [sic] come over from Eritrea. He has no need for immunosuppression and doesn’t take any drugs at all,” says Macchiarini. A few months later, he treated a second patient—an American named Christopher Lyles—in the same way, although Lyles later died for reasons unrelated to the transplantation.

Macchiarini now has gained approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to perform these transplants in the United States on a compassionate basis, for those patients who have no other options. “The final organ will never ever be as beautifully perfect as a natural organ,” says Macchiarini, “but the difference is that you don’t need a donation. It can be offered to a patient in need within days or weeks.” By contrast, even if a donor is found, a simple trachea can take a few months to regrow using a decellularized scaffold.

Other scientists have enjoyed similar success with other organs. In 1999, Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine successfully grew bladders using artificial scaffolds. He subsequently transplanted them into seven children afflicted with spina bifida. By 2006, all the children had gained better urinary control. Atala has just completed Phase II trials of his artificial bladders.

Vacanti thinks that artificial scaffolds are the future of organ engineering, and the only way in which organs for transplantation could be mass-produced. “You should be able to make them on demand, with low-cost materials and manufacturing technologies,” he says. Such mass production is relatively simple for organs such as tracheas or bladders, since these are simply hollow tubes or sacs. Such tissue engineering is much more difficult for the lung or liver, which have much more complicated structures. However, Vacanti thinks it will be possible to simulate their architecture with computer models, and then fabricate them with modern printing technology, which uses inkjet technology to squirt stem cells unto three-dimension scaffolds that fit the size of the organ of interest. “They obey very ordered rules, so you can reduce it down to a series of algorithms, which can help you design them,” says Vacanti. However, Taylor says that even if the architecture is correct, the scaffold would still need to contain the right surface molecules to guide the growth of any added cells. “It seems a bit of an overkill when nature has already done the work for us,” she says.

Whether the scaffold used by tissue engineers are natural or artificial, clinicians need to seed it with patient’s cells. For bladders or tracheas, enough cells can be collected from the patient by means of a small biopsy. Unfortunately, this will not work if the organ is diseased, or if it is a complex structure composed of multiple tissue types, or, as in the heart, if its cells do not normally divide normally. In such cases, clinicians will need either stem cells, which can divide and differentiate into any cell type, or progenitor cells that are restricted to specific organs. Since 2006, one source of stem cells has been adult tissues, which scientists can now reprogram back into a stem-cell like state using just a handful of genes. Induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs, could then be coaxed to develop into a tissue of choice. “For me, the cells have always been the most difficult part,” says Vacanti, “and I’d say the iPSCs are the ideal solution.”

Dick Cheney’s Heart Transplant


Because people have asked me to comment on the Dick Cheney heart transplant, I thought I would make one entry about it. Readers of this blog will recognize that I have very conservative leanings when it comes to subjects such as politics and health care. Also, the organ transplant waiting lists are local and federal. The decision to put someone on the organ recipient list is a decision that is between the patient and their physicians. I do not think the government has any right to intercede in the decision because it is a private decision. The shortage of organs can be addressed in other ways, but it seems to me that rationing by the government is simply wrong and contrary to the founding principles of our constitutional republic.

Having said all that, Cheney waited 20 months to receive his heart, and he was given no special treatment. You can argue that a younger person should have received this heart, but why? Cheney waited his turn. His age was, in his doctor’s opinion, not an important factor. Therefore, we should go with his doctor and not some bureaucrat.

Nevertheless, the best story on this comes from the inimitable Wesley Smith.  Read his view here.  It says it all.

Stem Cells Allow Kidney Transplant Recipients to Live Without Anti-Rejection Drugs


Researchers from Northwestern Medicine And University of Louisville are in the midst of a clinical trial to examine the use of stem cell infusions to re-educate the immune system of recipients of transplanted organs. Such re-education of the immune system might completely eliminate the need for anti-rejection medicines.

Organ transplant recipient must take several pills each day for the remainder of their lives. These medicines are drugs that suppress the immune system, and these drugs have many undesirable side effects. Prolonged use of these drugs can cause high blood pressure, diabetes, infections, heart disease, and cancer. Therefore a stem cell-based approach that obviates the need for drugs that inhibit the immune system would offer transplant recipients better quality of life and few health risks for transplant patients.

Joseph Leventhal, a transplant surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital said, “The preliminary results are exciting and may have a major impact on organ transplantation in the future. With refinement, this approach may prove to be applicable to the majority of patients receiving the full spectrum of solid organ transplants.” Leventhal is the main author of this study in collaboration with Suzanne Ildstad, who is the director of the Institute of Cellular Therapeutics at the University of Louisville. The study is, in fact, one of the first of its kind, since it does not require that the organ donor and recipient do not have to be tissue matched.

For standard kidney transplants, the organ donor, who has agreed to donate a kidney, provides their kidney for transplantation to the recipient. In this study, the organ donor not only provides a kidney, but also a small quantity of blood cells. Approximately one month before the transplant, the organ donor gives some bone marrow by means of a procedure called “apheresis.”

Apheresis removes whole blood from a patient, and then uses a centrifuge-like instrument to separate blood components. These separated portions are removed and the remaining components used for retransfusion. The blood components are separated into fluids, otherwise known as plasma, platelets, and white blood cells. From the white cell fraction, a group of cells that the study cells “facilitating cells” are isolated. The organ recipient’s bone marrow is partially ablated with radiation.

The kidney is then transplanted into the recipient’s body, and one day later, the facilitating cells are given to the recipient. Because the organ recipient’s bone marrow has been semi-ablated, the facilitating cells have space to grow without competition from the recipient’s bone marrow. The goal of this is to make within the recipient two bone marrow stem cell systems that are completely functional in one person. The patient is given anti-immune system drugs, but he or she is slowly weaned off them, with the goal of all anti-rejection drugs being ended within one year of the transplant. To qualify for this study, patients must have compatible blood types

Ildstad provided this insight, “This is something I have worked for my entire life.”  Ildstad pioneered the discovery of the “facilitating cell.”  This trial is ongoing, but the initial results are immensely encouraging, since some transplant patients seem to not need their anti-rejection medicines anymore even though they now have a kidney inside them that was not tissue matched.  Specifically, five of eight people who underwent this treatment protocol were able to stop all immunosuppressive therapy within a year after their kidney and stem-cell transplants,. Note that four of these five patients received kidneys that came from unrelated donors. Notably, all of these patients maintained entirely donor-derived immune systems with no signs of Graft-versus-Host disease.  Ildstad and her team have since treated seven more people. “We continue to see good results,” she says. This could easily revolutionize solid organ transplantation.