Bone Marrow Stem Cells Treat Chronic Pain

Nerve damage as a result of type 2 diabetes, surgical amputation, chemotherapy and other conditions can lead to chronic pain. Such chronic pain can resist painkiller medications and other treatments and is debilitating.

New studies from scientists at Duke University with mice have shown that injections of bone marrow-derived stem cells might be able to relieve this type of chronic, neuropathic pain. This study was recently published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation and might be the springboard for advanced cell-based therapies to treat chronic pain conditions, lower back pain and spinal cord injuries.

Ru-Rong Ji, professor of anesthesiology and neurobiology at the Duke School of Medicine and his team used bone marrow stromal cells (BMSCs) that were isolated from bone marrow aspirations. BMSCs have been shown in a variety of clinical trials and basic research experiments to produce an array of healing factors and can differentiate into many cell types of cells in the body. BMSCs are being tested in small-scale clinical studies with people who suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, heart damage and stroke. BMSCs might also be useful for treating pain, but it’s not clear how they work.

“Based on these new results, we have the know-how and we can further engineer and improve the cells to maximize their beneficial effects,” said Professor Ji. In his team’s study, stromal cells were used to treat mice with pain caused by nerve damage. The cells were delivered by means of lumbar puncture, which infused the BMSCs into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that bathes the spinal cord.


Mice treated with the bone marrow stromal cells were much less sensitive to painful stimuli after their nerve injury in comparison with untreated mice.

“This analgesic effect was amazing,” Ji said. “Normally, if you give an analgesic, you see pain relief for a few hours, at most a few days. But with bone marrow stem cells, after a single injection we saw pain relief over four to five weeks.”

When the spinal cords of the treated animals were examined in detail, Ji and others observed that the injected stem cells had clustered together along the nerve cells in the spinal cord.

To understand how the stem cells alleviated pain, Ji and his coworkers measured levels of anti-inflammatory molecules that have been linked to pain suppression. One of these molecules in particular, TGF-β1, was present in higher amounts in the CSF of the stem cell-treated animals compared with the untreated animals.

Immune cells typically secrete TGF-β1, which is a small protein, and it is found at low concentrations throughout the body. According to Professor Ji, people with chronic pain have been shown to possess too little TGF-β1.

In the new study, when Ji and others chemically neutralized TGF-β1 in the stem cell-treated animals, the pain-killing benefit of the infused BMSCs was reversed. This suggests that the secretion of this protein by BMSCs was a major reason these are able to abate neuropathic pain. When Ji and his crew directly injected TGF-β1 into the CSF, it provides significant pain relief, but only for a few hours, according to Ji.

However, infused BMSCs, remain at the site of infusion for as long as three months after their administration. This is just the right length of time for the cells to persist, according to Ji, because if the stem cells permanently persisted in the CSF, they have an increased risk of becoming cancerous.

Even more significantly, infused BMSCs also migrate to the site of injury. The ability of these cells to migrate to the site of injury depends on a molecule secreted by the injured nerve cells called CXCL12 (which, incidentally, has also previously been linked to neuropathic pain). CXCL12 (also known as stromal cell-derived factor-1) acts as a homing signal, since BMSCs have on their cell surfaces, a receptor for CXCL12 called CXCR4, CXCL12 acts as a kind of stem cell attractant.

In the next set of experiments, Ji and his colleagues would like to find a way to make the stromal cells more efficient. “If we know TGF-β1 is important, we can find a way to produce more of it,” Ji said. Additionally, the cells may produce other pain-relieving molecules, and Ji’s group is working to identify those.

Added Netrin-1 Increases Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Production Without Affecting Stem Cell Quality

Since 2006, stem cell researchers have succeeded in generating induced pluripotent cells (iPS cells) from mature, adult cells. These cells have enormous potential applications, particularly for regenerative medicine. However, the process by which these cells are made still requires further tweaking in order to increase its efficiency and safety. Recently, two teams of researchers from Inserm, CNRS, Centre Léon Bérard and Claude Bernard Lyon 1 University have discovered a molecule that seems to favor the production of iPS cells. Their work was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Reprogramming an already specialized cell into a pluripotent stem cell was discovered in 2006 by the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka. His iPS cells were capable of differentiating into any type of cell from the human body. Yamanaka and his colleagues made iPS cells by introducing into adult cells a cocktail of four genes (Oct4, Klf4, Sox2, and c-Myc). iPS cells, like embryonic stem cells, which are made from human embryos, are pluripotent, which means that they can differentiate into any mature adult cell type. iPS cells represent a promising medical advance, since they might be able to ultimately replace diseased organs with new organs that were derived from the patient’s own cells. Such technology will create tissues and organs that match the tissue types of the patient from whom the adult cells were isolated, which would eliminate all risks of transplantation rejection. The use of iPS cells would also circumvent the inherent ethical problems raised by the use of embryonic stem cells, which are derived from the destruction of human embryos.

Despite this success, cell reprogramming is besets by some problems. First of all, it is not terribly efficient; many cells undergo programmed cell death and this restricts the number of iPS cells produced. To increase the efficiencies of iPS cell production, Fabrice Lavial’s team, in collaboration with Patrick Mehlen’s team, identified new regulators of the derivation of iPS cells. They examined those genes that are regulated by the four inducing genes involved in the initiation of reprogramming. From this list of genes, they selected those genes known to have a role in programmed cell death, and whose expression varies over the course of reprogramming. This screening process yielded a gene that encodes a protein called netrin-1.

Netrin-1 is a protein naturally secreted by the body. Interestingly, netrin-1 can prevent programmed cell death, among other things. In the early days of reprogramming mouse cells, the researchers observed that their production of netrin-1 was strongly reduced, which limited the efficacy of the reprogramming process. Next, these research teams tested the effects of adding extra netrin-1 to cells during the early phases of reprogramming. This increased the quantity of iPS cells produced from mouse cells. When they repeated this experiment with human cells, the reprogramming process generated fifteen times more iPS cells than those produced by protocols without added netrin-1.

From a therapeutic point of view, it was important to determine whether this treatment affected the quality of cell reprogramming. Genomic tests, however, failed to show any deleterious effects of the use of netrin-1 on reprogrammed cells. “According to several verifications, netrin-1 treatment does not seem to have any impact on the genomic stability the iPS cells or on their ability to differentiate into other tissues,” says Fabrice Lavial, Inserm Research Fellow.

These research teams continue to test the effects of netrin-1 on the reprogramming of other types of cells. They would like to gain a better understanding of the mode of action of this molecule in stem cell physiology.

Stem Cell-Based Exosomes Heal Hearts After a Heart Attack

A new paper in the journal Circulation Research by a research team from the Temple University School of Medicine (TUSM) has examined the use of tiny stem cell-based vesicles to help limit the damage caused by a heart attack. Even those these experiments were performed with laboratory mice, the result are very promising.

A heart attack tends to badly damage it, and since the heart has little innate ability to repair itself, it has to compensate by growing large and flabby, which can lead to congestive heart failure, Congestive heart failure is currently responsible for one in nine deaths in the United States.

The research team of Raj Kishore at the Temple University School of Medicine turned to exosomes to heal the heart. Exosomes are tiny sacks secreted by cells that act as messengers that pass messengers between cells in various parts of the body. While these extracellular vesicles are secreted by nearly all types of cell, exosomes from stem cells might be a useful tool in mitigating damage caused by heart attacks.



“If your goal is to protect the heart, this is a pretty important finding,” Dr. Kishore said. “You can robustly increase the heart’s ability to repair itself without using the stem cells themselves. Our work shows a unique way to regenerate the heart using secreted vesicles from embryonic stem cells.”  Kishore’s group is also beginning to determine those members of this “work crew” within the vesicles may be responsible for the damage repair.

Previous studies have shown that injecting damaged hearts with stem cells increases heart function after a heart attack. However, the injected cells tend to not survive very long when placed in the damaged heart, and most of their benefits are due to molecules that the administered stem cells secrete. Pluripotent stem cells (embryonic stem cells, for example) run the risk of creating a tumor made up of a mass of cells of different tissue types, known as a teratoma. Therefore, Khan’s tram approached the problem from a slightly different angle by injecting only the exosomes made by stem cells. It was known that this would avoid the teratoma problem, and could have positive effects on damaged heart tissue.

Exosome poster

The study examined mice that had suffered heart attacks. These animals were split into two groups; one group received exosomes from mouse embryonic stem cells, and the other group were injected with fibroblast exosomes.

The results were extremely promising. The mice that had received stem cell-derived exosomes exhibited improved heart function, less scar tissue, lower levels of programmed cell death and better capillary development around the damaged area. There was also a higher presence of cardiac progenitor cells – the heart’s own stem cells – in the stem cell exosome-injected mice. Overall, the heartbeat of the mice was stronger than those in the control group, with less unhealthy enlargement of the organ.

Khan and others examined an abundant gene-regulating molecule (microRNA) from the stem cell-derived exosomes, known as miR-294. They introduced this microRNA into cultured cardiac stem cells. This microRNA recapitulated many of the positive effects of the stem cell exosomes that had been observed in the animal study.

Khan and his coworker plan to continue their research by studying the effects of individual microRNAs on damaged heart tissue.

“Our work shows that the best way to regenerate the heart is to augment the self-repair capabilities and increase the heart’s own capacity to heal,” says researcher Dr Mohsin Khan. “This way, we’re avoiding risks associated with teratoma formation and other potential complications of using full stem cells. It’s an exciting development in the field of heart disease.”

Using Drugs to Stimulate your Own Stem Cells to Treat Multiple Sclerosis

Paul Tesar from Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. Ohio and his colleagues have discovered that two different drugs, miconazole and clobetasol, can reverse the symptoms of multiple sclerosis in laboratory animals. Furthermore, these drugs do so by stimulating the animals’ own native stem cell population that insulates nerves.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a member of the “demyelinating disorders.” The cause of MS remains unknown, but all of our available evidence strongly suggests that MS is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. In MS the immune system attacks and destroys myelin — the fatty substance that coats and protects nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. We can compare myelin to the insulation that surrounds electrical wires. When myelin is damaged, the nerve impulses that travel along that nerve may be slowed or blocked.

The myelin sheath is made by cells known as “oligodendrocytes,” and oligodendrocytes are derived from a stem cell population known as OPCs, which stands for oligodendrocyte progenitor cells. If this stem cell population could be stimulated, then perhaps the damaged myelin sheath could be repaired and the symptoms of MS ameliorated.

In a paper that appeared in the journal Nature (522, 2015 216-220), Tesar and the members of his research team, and his collaborators used a pluripotent mouse stem cell line and differentiated them into OPCs. Thyroid hormone is a known inducer of OPC differentiation. Therefore, Tesar and others screened a battery of drugs to determine if any of these compounds could induce OPC differentiation as cell as thyroid hormone. From this screen using cultured OPCs, two drugs, the antifungal drug miconazole and clobetasol, a corticosteroid of the glucocorticoid class, proved to do a better job of inducing OPC differentiation than thyroid hormone.

Was this an experimental artifact? Tesar and others devised an ingenious assay to measure the effectiveness of these two drugs. They used brain slices from fetal mice that were taken from animals whose brains had yet to synthesize myelin and applied OPCs to these slices with and without the drugs. With OPCs, no myelin was made because the OPCs did not receive any signal to differentiate into mature oligodendrocytes and synthesize myelin. However in the presence of either miconazole or clobetasol, the OPCs differentiated and successfully myelinated the brain slices.

Experiments in tissue culture are a great start, but do they demonstrate a biological reality within a live animal? To answer this question, Tesar and his crew injected laboratory mice with purified myelin. The immune systems of these mice generated a robust immune response against myelin that eroded the myelin sheath from their nerves. This condition mimics human MS and is called experimental autoimmune encephalitis, and it is an excellent model system for studying MS. When mice with experimental autoimmune encephalitis (EAE) were treated with either miconazole or clobetasol, the EAE mice showed a remarkable reversal of symptoms and a solid attenuation of demyelination. Tissue samples established that these reversals were due to increased OPC activity.

When the mechanisms of these drugs were examined in detail, it became clear that the two drugs worked through distinct biochemical mechanisms. Miconazole, for example, activated the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway, but clobetasol worked through the glucocorticoid receptor signaling pathway. Both of these signaling pathways converge, however, to increase OPC differentiation.

Both miconazole and clobetasol are only approved for topical administration. However, the fact that these drugs can cross the blood-brain barrier and effect changes in the brain is very exciting. Furthermore, this work establishes the template for screening new compounds that might be efficacious in human patients.

In the meantime, human patients might benefit from a clinical trial that determines if the symptoms and neural damage caused by MS can be reversed by the administration of these drugs or derivatives of these drugs.

Temple University Lab Shows Exosomes from Stem Cells Heal Hearts After a Heart Attack

Temple University stem cell researcher Raj Kishore, who serves as the Director of the Stem Cell Therapy Program at the Center for Translational Medicine at Temple University School of Medicine (TUSM), and his colleagues have used exosomes from stem cells to induce tissue repair in the damaged heart. The results of this fascinating research made the cover of the June 19, 2015 edition of the leading cardiovascular research journal, Circulation Research.

“If your goal is to protect the heart, this is a pretty important finding,” Dr. Kishore said. “You can robustly the heart’s ability to repair itself without using the stem cells themselves. Our work shows a unique way to regenerate the heart using secreted vesicles from embryonic stem cells.” Kishore’s group is in the early stages of characterizing the molecules in these exosomes that are responsible for inducing and potentiating tissue repair.

The heart beats throughout the lifetime of an individual. Despite its apparent constancy, the heart possess little to no ability to repair itself. When heart muscle is damaged in a heart attack, the heart is unable to replace the dead tissue and grow new contracting heart muscle. Instead, after a heart attack, it compensates for lost pumping ability by enlarging, a phenomenon known as ”remodeling.” .Remodeling, however, come with a high price, since the heart grows beyond the ability of the sparse cardiac circulatory system to properly convey blood to the enlarged heart muscle. Consequently, heart contraction weakens, leading to a condition known as congestive heart failure, which contributes to, or causes one in nine deaths in the United States. Heart disease is our nation’s leading killer.

Given the fact that heart disease is the result of the death of heart muscle cells, this condition seems to tailor-made for stem cell therapy. A variety of animal experiments with stem cells from bone marrow, muscle, fat, or embryos have shown that stem cells can regenerate heart muscle. However, the regeneration of the heart is much more complicated than was originally thought. For example, injecting damaged hearts with stem cells turned out to be a rather ineffective strategy because the heart, after a heart attack, is a very hostile place for newly infused cells. Dr. Kishore noted, “People know if they inject hundreds of stem cells into an organ, you’re going to be very lucky to find two of them the next day. They die. It’s as though you’re putting them into the fire and the fire burns them.”

Dr. Kishore has used a very different approach for regenerative medicine. Over 10 years ago, cancer researchers discovered tiny sacks excreted by cells that they called “exosomes.” These exosomes were thought to be involved with waste disposal, but later work showed that they were more mini-messengers, carry telegrams between cells. Exosomes proved to be one way a primary tumor communicated with distant metastases. Researchers later discovered that nearly all cell types excrete exosomes. Dr. Kishore and his team began to study the exosomes of stem cells to determine if these small vesicles could solve the heart-repair problem.

In 2011, Kishore’s team published the first paper to ever examine stem cell exosomes and heart repair. This paper established Kishore and his research team as a pioneer in exosome research and in the use of exosomes in the treatment of heart disease. A year after that paper, there were a total of 52 papers published on exosomes, but today there are 7,519 papers reporting on exosome research. Among those studies, only 13 or 14 have examined exosomes in heart disease. This new paper by Dr. Kishore’s team marks its third contribution to the science of exosomes and heart repair.

In the current study, Kishore and others used a mouse model of heart attack. Also involved in the research are Dr. Kishore’s colleagues from Temple’s Center for Translational Medicine, the Cardiovascular Research Center, and the Department of Pharmacology, as well as researchers from the Feinberg Cardiovascular Research Institute at Northwestern University in Chicago.

In this study, after suffering a heart attack, the mice received exosomes from either embryonic stem cells or exosomes from fibroblasts. Mice that received the fibroblast-derived exosomes served as the control group. The results were unmistakable. Mice that received exosomes from embryonic stem cells showed significantly improved heart function after a heart attack compared to the control group. More heart muscle cells in these mice survived after the heart attack, and their hearts also exhibited less scar tissue. Fewer heart cells committed suicide — a process known as programmed cell death, or apoptosis. Also, hearts from mice treated with embryonic stem cell-derived exosomes showed greater capillary development around the areas of injury. The increased density of blood vessels improved circulation and oxygen supply to the heart muscle. Further, there was a marked increase in endogenous cardiac progenitor cells, which is the hearts own internal stem cell population. These cells survived and created new heart cells. The heartbeat was more powerful in the experimental group compared to the control group, and the kind of unhealthy enlargement that compensates for tissue damage was minimized.

Vishore’s group also tested the effect of one of the most abundant gene-regulating molecules (microRNAs) found in the stem cell exosome; a microRNA called miR-294. When purified miR-294 alone was introduced to cardiac stem cells in the laboratory, it mimicked many of the effects seen when the entire exosome was delivered. “To a large extent, this micro-RNA alone can recapitulate the activity of the exosome,” Dr. Kishore said. “But we can never say it is responsible for all of the response because embryonic stem cell exosomes have many other microRNAs.”

Future research will examine both exosome therapy and the use of specific microRNAs for heart repair in large-animal models of heart attack with a view to eventually testing these components in human patients in clinical trials.

“Our work shows that the best way to regenerate the heart is to augment the self-repair capabilities and increase the heart’s own capacity to heal,” Dr. Kishore said. “This way, we’re avoiding risks associated with teratoma formation and other potential complications of using full stem cells. It’s an exciting development in the field of heart disease.”

Gene Therapy Increases Stem Cell Recruitment to Heart and Improves Heart Function

Data from a Phase 2 clinical trial is creating quite a stir in cardiology circles. According to the findings of this study, the single administration of a gene on a non-viral-derived plasmid improves cardiac structure, function, serum biomarkers and clinical status in patients with severe ischemic heart failure one year after treatment.

The results from the final 12-months of the Phase 2 STOP-HF clinical trial for the JVS-100 treatment were presented at the European Society of Cardiology – Heart Failure 2015 meeting by the developer of this technology: Juventas Therapeutics Inc. The founder of Juventas, Marc Penn, M.D., Ph.D., FACC, is also the medical officer and director of Cardiovascular Research and Cardiovascular Medicine Fellowship at Summa Health in Akron, Ohio. Dr. Penn presented the results of this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled STOP-HF trial, which included treatments on 93 patients at 16 different clinical centers in the United States.

“The results from STOP-HF demonstrate that a single administration of 30 mg of JVS-100 has the potential to improve cardiac function, structure, serum biomarkers and clinical status in a population with advanced chronic heart failure who are symptomatic and present with poor cardiac function,” stated Dr. Penn. “These findings combined with our deep understanding of SDF-1 biology will guide future clinical trials in which we plan to prospectively study the patient population that demonstrated the most pronounced response to JVS-100. In addition, we will further our understanding of JVS-100 by determining if a second administration of drug may enhance benefits beyond those we observed with a single administration.”

These study. some patients received a 30 mg dose of JVS-100 while others received a placebo.  Patients who received JVS-100 showed definite improvements 12 months after treatment.  The cardiac function and heart structure of the patients who received JVS-100 were far better than those who had received the placebo.  JVS-100-treated patients showed a changed in left ventricle ejection fraction of 3.5% relative to placebo, and left ventricular end-systolic volume of 8.5 ml over placebo.  When patients were asked to walk for six minutes, the JVS-100-treated patients were better than patients who had received the placebo.  Likewise, when patients were given the Minnesota Living with Heart Failure Questionnaire, the JVS-100-treat patients had a better score than those who had received the placebo.  Also, there were no unanticipated serious adverse events related to the drug reported for the study.

JVS-100 is a non-viral DNA plasmid gene therapy. Plasmids are small circles of DNA that are relatively easy to manipulate, grow and propagate in bacterial cells. In the case of the JV-100 treatment, the plasmid encodes a protein called stromal cell-derived factor 1 (SDF-1). SDF-1 is a naturally occurring signaling protein that recruits stem cells from bone marrow to the site of SDF-1 expression. SDF-1, therefore, acts as a stem cell recruitment factor that summons stem cells to the places where they are needed.

When JV-100 is delivered directly to a site of tissue injury, it induces the expression of SDF-1 protein into the local environment for a period of approximately three weeks. SDF-1 secretion creates a homing signal that recruits the body’s own stem cells to the site of injury to induce tissue repair and regeneration.

Juventas is developing JVS-100 into a treatment of advanced chronic cardiovascular disease, including heart failure and late stage peripheral artery disease.

These improvements in heart function are relatively modest.  Therefore, it is difficult to get too excited about these results.  Also, Alexey Bersenev, a umbilical cord stem cell researcher, noted that the primary end points (or goalposts) for this trial were not met, and that makes this an unsuccessful trial.  Despite this bad news, JV-100 does seem to be safe, and the theory seems sound, even if the results are more than a little underwhelming.

Experimental Drug Can Stimulate the Regrowth of Damaged Tissues

Research at Case Western Reserve, in collaboration with scientists from UT Southwestern Medical Center has identified yet another stem cell-activating drug. In animal models, this drug has helped mice regrow damaged liver, colon, and bone marrow tissue. The experimental drug examined in these experiments might open new possibilities for regenerative medicine. If clinical trials show that this drug therapy works in humans, it might save the lives of critically ill people with liver or colon disease or even some cancers.

This study was published in the journal Science. Even this work is exciting, this research is in the early stages and more work is necessary for the drug can be tested in people.

“We are very excited,” said co-author Sanford Markowitz, professor of cancer genetics at Case Western Reserve’s School of Medicine. “We have developed a drug that acts like a vitamin for tissue stem cells, stimulating their ability to repair tissues more quickly,” he added. “The drug heals damage in multiple tissues, which suggests to us that it may have applications in treating many diseases.”

This new drug is called SW033291. SW033291 works by inhibiting an enzyme with the formidable name of 15-hydroxyprostaglandin dehydrogenase, which is mercifully shortened to 15-PGDH. This enzyme degrades regulatory molecules called “prostaglandins.” One of these prostaglandins, known as prostaglandin E2, stimulates stem cell growth and differentiation. Inhibition of 15-PGDH increases the concentrations of prostaglandin E2 and stimulates the growth of tissue stem cells, which promotes healing.


Markowitz and his colleagues first showed that SW033291 inactivated 15-PGDH in a test tube. When they fed the drug to cells, it also inhibited 15-PGDH. Finally, they gave the drug to lab animals and showed that even in a living body, SW033291 inhibited 15-PGDH.

Does the drug augment healing? To determine this, Markowitz and others subjected mice to lethal doses of radiation, followed by a partial bone marrow transplant. Some of the mice were given SW033291 plus the bone marrow transplant while others received only the transplant. The mice that received SW033291 survived, while the others died.

In other studies, mice that had lost large amounts of blood were given SW033291, and mice given SW033291 recovered normal blood counts six days faster than mice that did not get the treatment.

Mice with an inflammatory disease called ulcerative colitis were given SW033291 and the drug “healed virtually all the ulcers in the animals’ colons and prevented colitis symptoms,” said the study’s authors.

“In mice where two-thirds of their livers had been removed surgically, SW033291 accelerated regrowth of new liver nearly twice as fast as normally happens without medication.” Additionally, SW033291 produced no adverse side effects.

Researchers who were not involved with the work said the study showed promise, but urged a heavy dose of caution. For example, Dusko Illic, a stem cell expert at Kings College London, said: “The drug seems to be too good to be true. We would have to be sure that nothing else was wrong with any organ in the body,” because if there were cancer cells present, the treatment would likely cause tumor cells to grow along with other tissue.

However, Ilaria Bellantuono, an expert in stem cell science and skeletal ageing at the University of Sheffield, said a key part of the drug’s promise could be in helping cancer patients, if it is proven safe. The “treatment has the potential of boosting patents’ resilience and improving their response to cancer treatment,” said Bellantuono. “This study is a proof of concept in mice and more experimental work is needed to verify the long-term safety of such an approach but it surely shows promise.”

The author of this study said that the first people to receive the experimental treatment in clinical trials would likely be patients who are receiving bone marrow transplants, have ulcerative colitis, or are undergoing liver surgery.