Inhibition of a Heart-Specific Enzyme After a Heart Attack Decreases Heart Damage and Prevents Remodeling


Cardiac Troponin I-interacting Kinase or TNNI3K is an enzyme that was initially identified in fetal and adult heart tissue, but was undetectable in other tissues. The function of this enzyme remains unknown, but Chinese scientists showed that overexpression of TNNI3K in cultured heart muscle cells causes them to blow up and get large (hypertrophy). Earlier this year, a research team from Peking Union Medical College showed that overexpression of TNNI3K in mice caused enlargement of the heart (Tang H., et al., J Mol Cell Cardiol 54 (2013): 101-111). These results suggested that TNNI3K is a potential therapeutic target for heart attack patients.

To that end, Ronald Vagnozzi and his colleagues in the laboratory of Thomas Force at Temple University School of Medicine and their collaborators designed small molecules that can inhibit TNNI3K activity, and these small molecules decrease cardiac remodeling after a heart attack in rodents. Large animal trials are planned next.

In the first experiments of this paper, Vagnozzi and others showed that the levels of TNNI3K in the heart increase after a heart attack. Measurements of TNNI3K protein levels failed to detect it in all tissue other than the heart. Furthermore, it was present throughout the heart, and mainly in heart muscle and not in blood vessels, fibroblasts, and other types of non-muscle heart tissues.

Next, Vagnozzi and others measured TNNI3K protein levels in heart transplant patients. The heart tissues of these patients, who had badly dysfunctional hearts showed higher than usual levels of TNNI3K protein. Thus, TNNI3K is associated with heart tissue and is up-regulated in response to heart dysfunction.

The next experiment examined the effects of overexpressing the human TNNI3K gene in mice. While the overexpression of TNNI3K did not affect heart function of structure under normal circumstances, under pathological conditions, however, this is not he case. If mice that overexpressed TNNI3K where given heart attacks and then “reperfused,” means that the blood vessel that was tied off to cause the heart attack was opened and blood flowed back into the infarcted area. In these cases, mice that overexpressed TNNI3K had a larger area of cell death in their hearts than their counterparts that did not overexpress TNNI3K. The reason for this increased cell death had to do with the compartment in the cell that generated most of the energy – the mitochondrion. TNNI3K causes the mitochondria in heart muscle cells to go haywire and kick out all kinds of reactive oxygen-containing molecules that damage cells.

Cell damage as a result of reactive oxygen-containing molecules (known as reactive oxygen species or ROS) activates a pathway in heart cells called the “p38” pathway, which leads to programmed cell death.

p38 signaling

Once Vagnozzi and his colleagues nailed down the function of TNNI3K in heart muscle cells after a heart attack, they deleted the gene that encodes TNNI3K and gave those TNNI3K-deficient mice heart attacks. Interestingly enough, after a heart attack, TNNI3K-deficient mice showed much small dead areas than normal mice. Also, the levels of the other mediators of TNNI3K-induced cell death (e.g., oxygen-containing molecules, p38, ect.) were quite low. This confirms the earlier observations that TNNI3K mediates the death of heart muscle cells after a heart attack, and inhibiting TNNI3K activity decreases the deleterious effects of a heart attack.

And now for the pièce de résistance – Vagnozzi and his crew synthesized small molecules that inhibited TNNI3K in the test tube. Then they gave mice heart attacks and injected these molecules into the bellies of the mice. Not only were the infarcts, or areas of dead heart muscle cells small in the mice injected with these TNNI3K inhibitors, but the heart of these same mice did not undergo remodeling and did not enlarge, showed reduced scarring, and better ventricular function. This is a proof-of-principle that inhibiting TNNI3K can reduce the pathological effects of a heart attack.

This strategy must be tested in large animals before it can move to human trials, but the strategy seems sound at this point, and it may revolutionize the treatment of heart attack patients.

Mesenchymal Stem Cells Engineered to Express Tissue Kallikrein Increase Recovery After a Heart Attack


Julie Chao is from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, at the Medical University of South Carolina. Dr. Chao and her colleagues have published a paper in Circulation Journal about genetically modified mesenchymal stem cells and their ability to help heal a heart that has just experienced a heart attack.

Several laboratories have used mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), particularly from bone marrow, to treat the hearts of laboratory animals that have recently experienced a heart attack. However, heart muscle after a heart attack is a very hostile place, and implanted MSCs tend to pack up and die soon after injection. Therefore, such injected cells do little good.

To fix this problem, researchers have tried preconditioning cells by growing them in a harsh environment or by genetically engineering them with genes that can increase their tolerance of harsh environments. Both procedures have worked rather well. In this paper, Chao and her group engineered bone marrow-derived MSCs to express the genes that encode “tissue kallikrein” (TK). TK circulates throughout our bloodstream but several different types of cells also secrete it. It is an enzyme that degrades the protein “kininogen” into small bits that have several benefits. Earlier studies from Chao’s own laboratory showed that genetically engineering TK into the heart improved heart function after a heart attack and increased the ability of MSCs to withstand harsh conditions (see Agata J, Chao L, Chao J. Hypertension 2002; 40: 653 – 659; Yin H, Chao L, Chao J. Journal of  Biol Chem 2005; 280: 8022 – 8030). Therefore, Chao reasoned that using MSCs engineered to express TK might also increase the ability of MSCs to survive in the post-heart attack heart and heal the damaged heart.

In this paper, Chao and others made adenoviruses that expressed the TK gene. Adenoviruses place genes inside cells, but they do not integrate those genes into the genome of the host cell. Therefore, they are safer to use than retroviruses. Chao and others used these TK-expressing adenoviruses to infect tissue and MSCs.

When TK-expressing MSCs were exposed to low-oxygen conditions, like what cells might experience in a post-heart attack heart, the TK-expressing cells were much heartier than their non-TK-expressing counterparts. When injected into rat hearts 20 minutes after a heart attack had been induced, the TK-expressing MSCs showed good survival and robust TK expression. Control hearts that had been injected with non-TK-expression MSCs or had not been given a heart attack showed no such elevation of TK expression.

There were also added bonuses to TK-expressing MSC injections. The amount of inflammation in the hearts was significantly less in the hearts injected with TK-expressing MSC injections compared to the controls. There were fewer immune cells in the heart 1 day after the heart attack and the genes normally expressed in a heart that is experiencing massive inflammation were expressed at lower levels relative to controls, if they were expressed at all.

Reduced inflammation by TK-MSC administration was determined by (C) ED-1 immunohistochemical staining, (D) monocyte/macrophage quantification, (E) neutrophil quantification, and gene expression of (F) TNF-α, (G) ICAM-1, and (H) MCP-1. ED-1-positive cells are indicated by arrows. Original magnification, ×200. Data are mean ± SEM (n=5–8). *P<0.05 vs. other MI groups; **P<0.05 vs. MI/Control group. MSC, mesenchymal stem cell.
Reduced inflammation by TK-MSC administration was determined by (C) ED-1 immunohistochemical staining, (D) monocyte/macrophage quantification, (E)
neutrophil quantification, and gene expression of (F) TNF-α, (G) ICAM-1, and (H) MCP-1. ED-1-positive cells are indicated by arrows.
Original magnification, ×200. Data are mean ± SEM (n=5–8). *P

Another major bonus to the injection of TK-expressing MSCs into the hearts of rats was that these cells protected the heart muscle cells from programmed cell death. To make sure that this was not some kind of weird artifact, Chao and her team placed the TK-expressing MSCs in culture with heart muscle cells and then exposed them to low-oxygen tension conditions. Sure enough, the heart muscle cells co-cultured with the TK-expressing MSCs survived better than those co-cultured with non-TK-expressing MSCs.

TK-MSCs protect against cardiac cell apoptosis at 1 day after myocardial infarction (MI) and in vitro. TK-MSC administration reduced apoptosis in the infarct area at 1 day after MI, as determined by (A) TUNEL staining, (B) quantification of apoptotic cells, and (C) caspase-3 activity. Original magnification, ×200. Data are mean ± SEM (n=5–8). *P<0.05 vs. other MI groups. Cultured cardiomyocytes treated with 0.5 ml of TK-MSC-conditioned medium exhibit higher tolerance to hypoxia-induced apoptosis, as evidenced by (D) Hoechst staining,
TK-MSCs protect against cardiac cell apoptosis at 1 day after myocardial infarction (MI) and in vitro. TK-MSC administration
reduced apoptosis in the infarct area at 1 day after MI, as determined by (A) TUNEL staining, (B) quantification of apoptotic
cells, and (C) caspase-3 activity. Original magnification, ×200. Data are mean ± SEM (n=5–8). *Pcardiomyocytes treated with 0.5 ml of TK-MSC-conditioned medium exhibit higher tolerance to hypoxia-induced apoptosis, as
evidenced by (D) Hoechst staining,

Finally, when the hearts of the rats were examined 2 weeks after the heart attack, it was clear that the enlargement of the heart muscle (so-called “remodeling”) occurred in animals that had received non-TK-expressing MSCs or had received no MSCs at all, but did not occur in the hearts of rats that had received injections of TK-expressing MSCs. The heart scar was also significantly smaller in the hearts of rats that had received injections of TK-expressing MSCs, and had a greater concentration of new blood vessels. Apparently, the TK-expressing MSCs induced the growth of new blood vessels by recruiting EPCs to the heart to form new blood vessels.

In conclusion, the authors write that “MSCs genetically-modified with human TK are a potential therapeutic for ischemic heart diseases.”

Getting FDA approval for genetically engineered stem cells will not be easy, but TK engineering seems much safer than some of the other modifications that have been used. Also the vascular and cardiac benefits of this gene seem clear in this rodent model. Pre-clinical trials with larger animals whose cardiac physiology is more similar to humans is definitely warranted and should be done before any talk of human clinical trials ensues.

Treating Heart Patients with “Smart” Stem Cells


By aggressively treating heart attack patients soon after their episodes, clinicians have been able to reduce early mortality from heart attacks. However, the survival of these patients tends to create a whole new set of issues for them and their hearts. Chronic heart failure is a common aftermath of a heart attack for heart attack survivors. (see Kovacic JC and Fuster V., Clin Pharmacol Ther 2011;90:509-18).

Since the heart muscle (myocardium) has only a limited capacity to regenerate after a heart attack, multifaceted treatments have emerged that are designed to relieve symptoms and improve the patient’s clinical status. In particular, therapies target impaired contractility of the heart and the ability of the heart to handle the workload without enlarging. However, these treatments do not address the loss of heart muscle that underlies all heart attacks (see McMurray JJ. Systolic heart failure. N Engl J Med 2010;362:228-38). To address the loss of contracting heart tissue, stem cells, traditionally isolated from bone marrow, have been used in several clinical trials. However, the results of these studies have been highly variable, since most bone marrow stem cells placed in a heart after a heart attack, die soon after implantation.

To improve the ability of bone marrow stem cells to repair the heart, Andre Terzic from the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine has designed a special cocktail to induce mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow to become more heart-friendly. This cocktail consisted of the following growth factors: TGFβ1, BMP-4, Activin-A, retinoic acid, IGF-1, FGF-2, α-thrombin and IL-6. Mesenchymal stem cells were cultured for 10 days in this cocktail and then tested for heart-specific genes.

Terzic calls this procedure “cardiopoiesis,” and when he subjected bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells (BM-MSCs) to this procedure, they expressed a cadre of genes that is normally found in developing heart cells (Nkx2-5, MEF2C, GATA4, TBX5, etc.). In an earlier publication, Terzic and his colleagues transplanted BM-MSCs from heart patients into the hearts of mice that had suffered a heart attack and compared the effects of these cells on the heart, with BM-MSCs that had undergone this guided cardiopoiesis protocol. The results were astounding. Not only did the function of the hearts that had received the guided cardiopoiesis M-MSCs much more normal than those had had received the untreated BM-MSCs, but post-mortem examination of the hearts showed that the hearts that had received guided cardiopoiesis BM-MSCs contained human heart muscle cells integrated into the heart muscle tissue (Atta Behfar, et al., J Am Coll Cardiol. 2010 August 24; 56(9): 721–734). Therefore, this procedure, cried out for a clinical trial, and data from such a trial has already been reported.

A, Human-specific troponin-I (green) in the anterior wall of naive- versus CP-treated hearts, respectively, co-localized with ventricular myosin light chain (MLC2v, red). Bar, 100 μm. B, Human troponin-I staining of naïve versus CP hMSC treated hearts, counterstained with α-Actinin (red), demonstrated engraftment of human cells. Cell cycle activation, documented by Ki-67 expression (yellow, arrows), noted in human troponin positive and endogenous cardiomyocytes. C, Confocal evaluation of collateral vessels from CP hMSC treated hearts demonstrated human-specific CD-31 (PECAM-1) staining. D, Human lamin staining (arrows) co-localized with nuclei of smooth muscle in vessels from CP hMSC treated but not saline or naïve treated hearts. Bar, 20 μm for B-D.
A, Human-specific troponin-I (green) in the anterior wall of naive- versus CP-treated hearts,
respectively, co-localized with ventricular myosin light chain (MLC2v, red). Bar, 100 μm.
B, Human troponin-I staining of naïve versus CP hMSC treated hearts, counterstained with
α-Actinin (red), demonstrated engraftment of human cells. Cell cycle activation,
documented by Ki-67 expression (yellow, arrows), noted in human troponin positive and
endogenous cardiomyocytes. C, Confocal evaluation of collateral vessels from CP hMSC
treated hearts demonstrated human-specific CD-31 (PECAM-1) staining. D, Human lamin
staining (arrows) co-localized with nuclei of smooth muscle in vessels from CP hMSC
treated but not saline or naïve treated hearts. Bar, 20 μm for B-D.

In a paper from February 2013 (Bartunek J, et al., Journal of the American College of Cardiology (2013), doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2013.02.071), Terzic and his team has reported on the administration of BM-MSCs into the hearts of 34 heart patients. Of these patients, 21 were implanted with their own BM-MSCs that had undergone guided cardiopoiesis and the other 12 received standard therapy for heart patients with no transplanted cells.

The results from this study were striking to say the least. According to Terzic, “The benefit to patients who received cardiopoietic stem cell delivery was significant.” Cardiologist Charles Murry wrote in an editorial, “Six months after treatment, the cell therapy group had a seven percent absolute improvement in EF (ejection fraction) over baseline, versus a non-significant change in the control group. The improvement in EF is dramatic, particularly given the duration between the ischemic injury and cell therapy. It compared favorably with our most potent therapies in heart failure.”

This clinical trial, known as the C-CURE trial, which stands for Cardiopoietic Stem Cell Therapy in Heart Failure. was an international, multi-center trial that treated enrolled patients from hospitals in Belgium, Serbia, and Switzerland. This trial represents the culmination of almost a decade of work by Terzic and others. “Discovery of rare stem cells that could inherently promote heart regeneration provided a critical clue. In following this natural blueprint, we further developed the know-how needed to convert patient-derived stem cells into cells that can reliably repair a failing heart.”

For this trial, Mayo Clinic partnered with Cadio3 Biosciences, which is a bio-science company in Mort-Saint-Guilbert, Belgium. This company provided advance product development, manufacturing scale-up, and clinical trial execution.  Adaptation of this exciting new technology to the clinic could mean a new exciting fix for heart patients.

Mesenchymal Stem Cell Transplantation Improves Heart Remodeling After a Heart Attack


Stem cell scientists from the University of Maryland, Baltimore have used bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) to treat sheep that had suffered a heart attack. They found that the injected stem cells prevented the heart from deteriorating.

This work was a collaboration between the laboratories of Mark Pittenger, ZhonGjun Wu and Bartley Griffith from the Department of Surgery and the Artificial Organ Laboratory.

After a heart attack, the region of the heart that was deprived of oxygen undergoes cell death and is replaced by a heart scar. However, the region next to the dead cells also undergo problematic changes. The cells in these regions adjacent to dead region must contract more forcibly in order to compensate for the noncontracting dead region. These cells enlarge, but some undergo cell death due to inadequate blood supply. There are other changes that can occur, such as abnormalities in Calcium ion handling and poor contractability.

Thus, the problems that result from a heart attack can spread throughout the heart and cause heart failure. In this experiment, the U of Maryland scientists injected MSCs into the sheep hearts four hours after a heart attack to determine if the stem cells could prevent the region adjacent to the dead heart cells from deteriorating.

In this experiment, bone marrow MSCs were isolated from sheep bone marrow and put through a battery of tests to ensure that they could differentiate into bone, cartilage, and fat. Once the researchers were satisfied that the MSCs were proper MSCs, they induced heart attacks in the sheep, and then injected ~200 million MSCs into the area right next to the region of the heart that died.

After 12 weeks, tissue biopsies from these sheep hearts were taken and examined. Also, the sheep hearts were measured for their heart function and structure.

The sheep that did not receive any MSC injections continued to deteriorate and showed signs of stress. The cells adjacent to the dead region expressed a cadre of genes associated with increased cell stress. Furthermore, there was increased cell death and evidence of scarring in the region adjacent to the death region. There was also evidence of Calcium ion-handling problems in the adjacent tissue and increased cell death.

On the other hand, the hearts of the sheep that had received injections of MSCs into the area adjacent to the dead region showed a reduced expression of those genes associated with increased cell stress. Also, these hearts contracted better than those that had not received stem cell injections. There was also less cell death, less scarring, and no evidence of Calcium ion-handling problems.

Changes that occur in the heart after a heart attack are collectively referred to as “remodeling.” Remodeling begins regionally, in those areas near the dead heart cells, but these deleterious changes spread to the rest of the heart, resulting in heart failure. The injections of MSCs into the area next to the dead region clearly prevented remodeling from occurring.

This pre-clinical study is a remarkable study for another reason: the MSCs used in this study were allogeneic. Allogeneic is a fancy way of saying that they did not come from the same animal that suffered the heart attack, but from some other healthy animal. Therefore, the delivery of a donor’s MSCs into the heart of a heart attack patient could potentially prevent heart remodeling.

The main problem with this experiment is that the MSCs were injected directly into the heart muscle. In humans, such a procedure requires special equipment and carries potential risks that include perforation of the heart wall, rupture of the heart wall, or further damaging the heart muscle. Therefore, if such a technology could be adapted to a more practical delivery system in humans, then certainly human clinical trials should be forthcoming.

See Yunshan Zhao, et al., “Mesenchymal stem cell transplantation improves regional cardiac remodeling following ovine infarction.” Stem Cells Translational Medicine 2012;1:685-95.