Umbilical Cord Stem Cells Improve Heart Function after a Heart Attack

The umbilical cord connects the baby to the placenta and contains umbilical arteries, umbilical veins, and a gooey material between the umbilical vessels called Warton’s jelly. Warton’s Jelly (WJ), besides being rich in extracellular matrix molecules also contains a mesenchymal stem cell population that is rather primitive. These WJ mesenchymal stem cells or WJMSCs have excellent potential for therapeutic strategies.

Lian Gao and her colleagues from the Navy General Hospital in Beijing, China, in collaboration with coworkers from the Shenzhen Beike Cell Engineering Research Institute in Shenzhen, China conducted a clinical trial that examined the use of these WJMSCs in human patients who had suffered a heart attack.  The results are as interesting as they are suggestive and were published in the journal BMC Medicine.

First we must consider the design of the study. Gao and others recruited 160 heart attack patients who were no younger than 18 and no older than 80-years old. All patients had to be free of liver or kidney disease, cancer or some other terminal illness. They were admitted to 11 hospitals in China between February 2011 and January 2012 and had suffered from a documented heart attack as defined by symptoms and their EKG (ST elevation). All patients has also been treated with the implantation of a stent within 12 hours of their heart attack and still retained a respectable amount of movement of the heart wall in the left ventricle. If patients were outside these parameters, they were excluded from the study.

Of the 160 patients who were recruited for the study, 44 were excluded, either because they did not fit within the exclusion criteria, did not wish to participate in the trial, or opted out for undisclosed reasons. This left 116 patients who were randomly assigned to the placebo group or the experimental group (58 in each group). Of these two groups, the placebo group had one patient discontinue the study because of a bout with stomach cancer. The experimental group had one patient die ten days into the trial, another was lost because they moved and a third patients withdrew because of leukemia. This left 57 subjects for the placebo group and 55 for the experiment group who went through all 18 months of follow-up after their respective procedures.

There were two end points for this clinical trial after patients were observed for 18 months after the procedure. The first was safety and this was measured by examining the number of adverse effects (AEs) within these 18 months. Such AEs include things like death, hospitalization for worsening heart function, severe arrhythmias, repeated coronary intervention, blood clots forming in the stents (stent thrombosis), coronary artery obstruction, and the growth of extra tissue in the heart that does not belong there, disorders of the immune system and so on. The second end pointy was efficacy of the implanted cells. To ascertain this, the function of the heart was measured using positron emission computer tomography (PET), and single-photo-emission computer tomography or SPECT. These imaging procedures allow cardiologists to take very precise snapshots of the heart and determine with a good deal of accuracy the performance of the heart.

The WJMSCs were acquired from umbilical cords that were donated from healthy mothers who had delivered healthy babies by means of Caesarian section. 21 of these umbilical cords had their blood vessels removed and then the gelatinous tissue surrounding the vessels was removed, sliced up, and cultured. The MSCs in the gelatinous tissue, which is Warton’s Jelly, migrated from the WJ to the culture dishes. After three passages in the culture dishes, he cells were harvested, concentrated, and tested for viruses, toxins, and cell viability. All cells were negative for viruses and toxins and other contaminants, and were also clearly MSCs, based on the ensemble of cell surface proteins that presented on their membranes, and showed high degrees of viability.

In infuse the cells into the hearts of the patients, six million WJMSCs were delivered into the coronary arteries using the usual over-the-wire techniques that are used to place stents, except that instead of placing stents, WJMSCs were slowly released into the coronary arteries. The cells will home to the damaged heart tissue and are able to pass through the blood vessels into the area of the infarct. Patients receiving the placebo, only received infusions of physiological saline solution, which was used to resuspend the WJMSCs.

The results are very encouraging. With respect to safety, the number of AEs was approximately the same for both groups. In the words of the study, “The groups did not differ in occurrences of MACEs (major adverse cardiac events), including death, recurrences of AMIs (acute myocardial infarctions) and re-hospitalization due to heart failure, during the course of treatment and the 18-month follow-up period.” There were no indications of cancer or the increase in tumor-specific molecules in the blood of the patients from either group. No biochemical or immune abnormalities were observed in any pf the patients either. The stomach cancer in one patient in the placebo group and leukemia in a patient from the experimental group were shown to be unrelated to the procedures. Therefore, at 18 months after the procedure, the infusion of these cells appears to be safe.

As to the efficacy of the procedure, there were significant improvements in the heart function of patients who had received the WJMSCs over those who had received placebo. First of all, the baseline heart function of patients in both groups was approximately the same on the average, except that the patients in the experimental group had slightly better heart parameter than those in the placebo group. Therefore, the efficacy of this procedure was determined by measuring the change in heart performance after the procedure. Patients who had received the placebo had about a 3% increase in the uptake of the F18-labeled sugar molecule after 4 months. The uptake of this marker indicates the presence of live cells. An increase in uptake of the modified sugar molecule shows that some new heart tissue has been produced, probably by the resident stem cell population in the heart. The experimental group, however, after 4 months showed an approximate 7% increase in PET signal intensity. This shows that a good deal more heart cells are being formed in the WJMSC-treated hearts that in the placebo-treated hearts. The SPECT imaging assays the “perfusion” of the heart tissue or the degree to which the heart tissue is being fed by blood vessels. After a heart attack, the dead area of the heart lacks blood vessels and its poor perfusion can affect nearby areas. The placebo-treated patients had a roughly 4% increase in SPECT signal, whereas the WJMSC-treated group had a 7% increase. Thus, the WJMSC-treated hearts had more blood vessels to feed the blood, oxygen and nutrients to the heart muscle and therefore, better perfusion.

Finally, the percentage of blood ejected by the heart during each contraction increase about 3% in the placebo group, but increase by about 8% in the WJMSC-treated group after 18 months. This parameter of heart function, the ejection fraction, is a very important measure of heart function and the fact that it significantly increased in the WJMSC-treated patients over the placebo-treated patients is an important finding.

This was a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study that determined the safety and efficacy of infusions of WJMSCs into the hearts of patients who had recently suffered from a heart attack. In animal experiments, these cells have been shown to increase heart function, increase blood vessel density in the hearts of animals, and increase resident heart-specific stem cell activity in the heart (see Lupu and others, Cell Physiol Biochem 2011; 28:63-76; Gao and others, Cell Transplant 2013; 22:1883-1900; Lopez Y, and others, Current Stem Cell Res Ther 2013;8:46-59). This clinical trial suggests that those benefits documented in laboratory animals might translate to human patients.

This is not a perfect study. These patients will need to be followed for several years to establish that these benefits are long-term and not short-term. Also, there is no indication that patients were given a 6-minute walking test to determine if the improvements in cardiac function translated to improvements in basic activities. However, it is an interesting study and it suggests that banking WJMSCs in addition to cord blood might be a good idea for use in trials like this one and maybe, someday for treatments of heart attack patients.

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.

Effective Stem Cell-Based Treatment for Lupus

Chinese physicians and stem cell researchers from Shenzhen, China have reported on their clinical trial that treated 40 patients with severe and refractory lupus systemic erythematosus with mesenchymal stem cells isolated from umbilical cord.  This 40-patient, multicenter study targeted patients with active and difficult-to-treat lupus.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), which is also simply known as lupus, is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue.  Lupus can affect the skin, joints, kidneys, brain, or even other organs.

What causes lupus is uncertain, but tissue damage seems to predispose some people to the onset of lupus.  Lupus commonly affects women than men, and it can occur at any age.  It most commonly appears most often in people between the ages of 10 and 50, and African-Americans and Asians are affected more often than people from other ethnic groups.  Particular drugs have also been linked to the onset of lupus or lupus-like conditions (e.g., isoniazid, hydralazine, procainamide, and less commonly anti-seizure medicines, capoten, chlorpromazine, etanercept, infliximab, methyldopa, minocycline, penacillamine, quinidine, and sulfasalazine).

The symptoms of lupus vary tremendously and they usually come and go.  Almost all lupus patients have some joint pain and swelling, and some develop arthritis.  Typically the joints of the fingers, hands, wrists, and knees are most often affected.  Other symptoms include chest pain when taking a deep breath, fatigue, fever, general discomfort, uneasiness, or ill feeling (malaise), hair loss, mouth sores, swollen lymph nodes, and sensitivity to sunlight.  Also, a specific type of skin rash known as a “butterfly” rash occurs in about half of lupus patients.  The butterfly rash is most often seen over the cheeks and bridge of the nose, but can be widespread and gets worse in sunlight.  Some people have only skin symptoms and have what is known as discoid lupus. 

Chronic lupus usually becomes concentrated in specific organs, which can cause secondary symptoms.  These symptoms can include:

1.  Brain and nervous system: headaches, numbness, tingling, seizures, vision problems, personality changes.

2.  Digestive tract: abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting, and the symptoms of liver failure.

3.  Heart: abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias).

4.  Lung: coughing up blood and difficulty breathing.

5.  Skin: patchy skin color, fingers that change color when cold (Raynaud’s phenomenon)

To treat lupus, powerful anti-inflammatory drugs are usually used.  These include systemic steroids such as prednisone (Deltasone and others), hydrocortisone, methylprednisolone (Medrol and others), or dexamethasone (Decadron and others).  Other drugs include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and other brand names) or naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn and others).  However, other drugs include antimalarial drugs such as hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), chloroquine (Aralen), or quinacrine. Recent studies suggest that lupus patients treated with antimalarial medications have less active disease and less organ damage over time. Therefore, many experts now recommend antimalarial treatment for all patients with systemic lupus unless they cannot tolerate the medication. If these do not work, then the “big guns” include immunosuppressives, such as azathioprine (Imuran), cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan, Neosar), mycophenolate mofetil (CellCept), or belimumab (Benlysta) and Methotrexate (Rheumatrex, Folex, Methotrexate LPF).  These drugs have long lists of side effects and drug interactions.  Even then, some patients are not helped by these drugs.

Thus more efficacious and safe ways to treat recalcitrant cases of lupus have included stem cell treatments.  In particular, mesenchymal stem cells and their ability to suppress inflammation.  To that end, several pre-clinical and clinical trials have tested mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow, fat and umbilical cord to reduce the chronic inflammation associated with particular autoimmune diseases (see P Connick, et al., Lancet Neurol. 2012 Feb;11(2):150-6; MM Bonab, et al., Curr Stem Cell Res Ther. 2012 Nov;7(6):407-14; J Voswinkel, et al., Immunol Res. 2013 Jul;56(2-3):241-8; P Connick P, et al., Trials. 2011 Mar 2;12:62; D Karussis, et al., Arch Neurol. 2010 Oct;67(10):1187-94; B Yamout, et al., J Neuroimmunol. 2010 Oct 8;227(1-2):185-9).

This new Chinese trial provides some very interesting and welcome data on the use of mesenchymal stem cells from umbilical cord to treat lupus.

Dr. Xiang Hu, who founded the biotechnology company Beike, said, “We are pleased with the results we have seen in our clinical trial.  While some severe cases experienced relapse after 6 months, the results show a markedly improved quality of life expectation.  This is a big step forward in combating autoimmune disease.  We will now be looking to further our SLE research efforts to find even better results.”

The forty patients who participated in the study were recruited from four centers in China.  The umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells used in the study were processed by Beike Biotech’s scientists at the company’s new state-of-the-art Jiangsu Stem Cell Regenerative Medicine Facility in Taizhou, China.  Stem cells from sources other than the patient’s own body are known as allogeneic stem cells, and these forty patients, all of whom have refractory lupus were infused with umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells intravenously at the beginning of the study and one week later.  To score each patient’s disease progression, a clinical test called a SLEDAI or Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Disease Activity score.  The SLEDAI score results from a compilation of multiple clinical and laboratory tests.

After 6 months, all patients showed significant improvement in their SLEDAI scores, but after six months, several patients experienced relapse, which required a repeat treatment with mesenchymal stem cells. Also, the safety profile of these cells was superior to many of the drugs used to treat lupus.

This study is suggests that the mesenchymal stem cells suppress active lupus without causing severe adverse effects.  However, in order to show that definitively, a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study must be conducted.  Also, trying to provide longer periods of relief rather than just six months of relief is another factor that further work will hopefully address.

Caduceus Clinical Trial One-Year Update

The CADUCEUS clinical trial, which stands for CArdiosphere-Derived aUtologous stem CElls, to reverse ventricUlar dySfunction) was the brainchild of Cedar-Sinai cardiologist Eduardo Marbán and his colleagues. 

This CADUCEUS trial used a heart-specific stem cell called CDCs or cardiosphere-derived cells to treat patients who had recently suffered a heart attack.  CDCs are extracted from the patient’s own heart and they can be grown in culture, expanded, and then implanted back into the patient’s heart. The initial assessments of those patients who had received the stem cell treatments was published in 2012 in the Journal Lancet (R.R. Makkar, R.R. Smith, K. Cheng et al. Intracoronary cardiosphere-derived cells for heart regeneration after myocardial infarction (CADUCEUS): a prospective, randomised phase 1 trial. Lancet, 379 (2012), pp. 895–904). The initial assessments of these patients showed shrinkage of their heart scars.  However, these patients showed regional improvements in heart function but no significant differences in global heart function.  Despite these caveats, the initial results were hopeful. 

Now the one-year follow-up of these patients has been published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.  The results of this examination are even more exciting.

CDCs were extracted from patients by means of heart biopsies of the inner part of the heart muscle (myocardium). After the cells were grown in culture to larger numbers, they were reintroduced to the hearts of the patients by means of “stop-flow” technique. This procedure utilizes the same technology as stents in that an over-the-wire balloon angioplasty catheter that was positioned in the blood vessels on the heart that were blocked. The figure below shows the cultured cardiospheres.

Specimen processing for human cardiosphere growth and CDC expansion. a, Schematic depicts the steps involved in specimen processing. b, Endomyocardial biopsy fragment on day 1. c, Explant 3 days after plating. d, Edge of explant 13 days after plating showing stromal-like and phase-bright cells. e, Cardiosphere-forming cells collected from the explant after 13 days and plated on poly-d-lysine for 2 days. f, Fully formed cardiospheres on day 25, 12 days after collection of cardiosphere-forming cells. g, CDCs during passage 2, plated on fibronectin for expansion. h and i, Cell growth is expressed as number of population doublings from the time of the first harvest for specimens from nontransplant patients (h) and specimens from transplant patients (i).
Specimen processing for human cardiosphere growth and CDC expansion. a, Schematic depicts the steps involved in specimen processing. b, Endomyocardial biopsy fragment on day 1. c, Explant 3 days after plating. d, Edge of explant 13 days after plating showing stromal-like and phase-bright cells. e, Cardiosphere-forming cells collected from the explant after 13 days and plated on poly-d-lysine for 2 days. f, Fully formed cardiospheres on day 25, 12 days after collection of cardiosphere-forming cells. g, CDCs during passage 2, plated on fibronectin for expansion. h and i, Cell growth is expressed as number of population doublings from the time of the first harvest for specimens from nontransplant patients (h) and specimens from transplant patients (i).

The initial assessment of these patients showed shrinkage of the heart scar and regional improvements in heart function. However in the one-year follow-up the scar showed even more drastic shrinkage (-11.9 grams or -11.1% of the left ventricle). Also, several of the indicators of global heart function showed substantial improvements (end-diastolic volume – -12.7 mls and end-systolic volume – -13.2 mls).

When it come to the all-important ejection fraction, which is the percentage of blood pumped from the left ventricle, the results are a little more complicated. When the ejection factions of each patient was compared with the size of their heart scars, there was a tight correlation between the increase in ejection fraction and the shrinkage of the heart scar. See the figure below for a scatter plot of ejection fraction versus heart scar size.

(A) Scatterplot showing the natural relationship between scar size and left ventricular ejection fraction ∼5 months post-myocardial infarction (circles). Each cross symbol represents the mean values (at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal bars [obtained from all patients with magnetic resonance imaging measurements]), whereas the width of each bar equals ±SEM of scar size and left ventricular ejection fraction of CADUCEUS patients at baseline, 6 months, and 1 year; the crosses are superimposed onto the scatterplot showing prior data from post-myocardial infarction patients with variable scar sizes. The changes in left ventricular ejection fraction in CDC-treated subjects are consistent with the natural relationship between scar size and ejection fraction in convalescent myocardial infarction, whereas the changes in left ventricular ejection fraction in controls fall within the margins of variability. (B) Changes in end-diastolic volume from baseline to 1 year. (C) Changes in end-systolic volume from baseline to 1 year. CDCs = cardiosphere-derived cells; EDV = end-diastolic volume; EF = ejection fraction; ESV = end-systolic volume; LV = left ventricle.
(A) Scatterplot showing the natural relationship between scar size and left ventricular ejection fraction ∼5 months post-myocardial infarction (circles). Each cross symbol represents the mean values (at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal bars [obtained from all patients with magnetic resonance imaging measurements]), whereas the width of each bar equals ±SEM of scar size and left ventricular ejection fraction of CADUCEUS patients at baseline, 6 months, and 1 year; the crosses are superimposed onto the scatterplot showing prior data from post-myocardial infarction patients with variable scar sizes. The changes in left ventricular ejection fraction in CDC-treated subjects are consistent with the natural relationship between scar size and ejection fraction in convalescent myocardial infarction, whereas the changes in left ventricular ejection fraction in controls fall within the margins of variability. (B) Changes in end-diastolic volume from baseline to 1 year. (C) Changes in end-systolic volume from baseline to 1 year. CDCs = cardiosphere-derived cells; EDV = end-diastolic volume; EF = ejection fraction; ESV = end-systolic volume; LV = left ventricle.

Other observations included safety assessments. When the number of adverse events between the control group and CDC-receiving group were measured, there were no differences between the two groups. The patients in the CDC-receiving group were more likely to be hospitalized and had transient cases of fast heartbeats, and there was also one death in this group. However the incidence of these events were not statistically different from the control group.

From these assessments, it is clear that the CDC treatments are safe, and decreased the scar size and regional function of infarcted heart muscle. From these results, the researchers state that “These findings motivate the further exploration of CDCs in future clinical studies.

Stem Cell Injections Reduce Lower Back Pain

W. Jeremy Beckworth and his co-workers at Emory Orthopaedics and Spine Center, in collaboration with several other orthopedic care groups, have participated in a clinical trial that demonstrated that a single injection of stem cells into degenerative intervertebral discs significantly reduced lower back pain for at least 12 months according. Beckworth’s clinical trial consisted of 100-patients and was a phase II, international clinical trial.

Beckworth, assistant professor of Orthopaedics and Rehab Medicine, gave patient injections of a subset of mesenchymal stem cells isolated from bone marrow stem cells called mesenchymal precursor cells (MPCs) in order to attenuate pain in patients with lower back pain. On average, Beckworth and his colleagues discovered that stem cell injections led to a reduction in pain levels greater than 50 percent at 12 months. Additionally, patients who received stem cell injections felt less of a need for pain medications, showed an improvement in function, and less need for further surgical and non-surgical spine interventions. These results were compiled from patients with moderate to severe disc-related lower back pain.

“These are very exciting findings,” explains Beckworth. “The results provide significant hope for a condition that has been very tough to treat. Discogenic low back pain, a painful degenerative disc, is the most common cause of chronic low back pain.”

This phase II clinical trial builds on a previously reported preclinical study showed that highly purified MPCs were able to repair and restore disc structure. All the data from this trial showed that there were statistically significant improvements in patients who received stem cell injections compared to those in control groups who received no such injections.

“Currently there is no adequate treatment for discogenic low back pain,” says Beckworth. “Both conservative and surgical treatments fall short. These positive results pave the way for a phase III study that may be starting later this year.”

When Is the Best Time to Treat Heart Attack Patients With Stem Cells?

Several preclinical trials in laboratory animals and clinical trials have definitively demonstrated the efficacy of stem cell treatments after a heart attack. However, these same studies have left several question largely unresolved. For example, when is the best time to treat acute heart attack patients? What is the appropriate stem cell dose? What is the best way to administer these stem cells? Is it better to use a patient’s own stem cells or stem cells from someone else?

A recent clinical trial from Soochow University in Suzhou, China has addressed the question of when to treat heart attack patients. Published in the Life Sciences section of the journal Science China, Yi Huan Chen and Xiao Mei Teng and their colleagues in the laboratory of Zen Ya Shen administered bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stromal cells at different times after a heart attack. Their study also examined the effects of mesenchymal stem cells transplants at different times after a heart attack in Taihu Meishan pigs. This combination of preclinical and clinical studies makes this paper a very powerful piece of research indeed.

The results of the clinical trial came from 42 heart attack patients who were treated 3 hours after suffering a heart attack, or 1 day, 3 days, 2 weeks or 4 weeks after a heart attack. The patients were evaluated with echocardiogram to ascertain heart function and magnetic resonance imaging of the heart to determine the size of the heart scar, the thickness of the heart wall, and the amount of blood pumped per heart beat (stroke volume).

When the data were complied and analyzed, patients who received their stem cell transplants 2-4 weeks after their heart attacks fared better than the other groups. The heart function improved substantially and the size of the infarct shrank the most. 4 weeks was better than 2 weeks,

The animal studies showed very similar results.

Eight patients were selected to receive additional stem cell transplants. These patients showed even greater improvements in heart function (ejection fraction improved to an average of 51.9% s opposed to 39.3% for the controls).

These results show that 2-4 weeks constitutes the optimal window for stem cell transplantation. If the transplant is given too early, then the environment of he heart is simply too hostile to support the survival of the stem cells. However, if the transplant is performed too late, the heart has already experiences a large amount of cell death, and a stem cell treatment might be superfluous. Instead 2-4 weeks appears to be the “sweet spot” when the heart is hospitable enough to support the survival of the transplanted stem cells and benefit from their healing properties. Also, this paper shows that multiple stem cell transplants a two different times to convey additional benefits, and should be considered under certain conditions.

Stem Cell-Based Gene Therapy Restores Normal Skin Function

Michele De Luca from the University of Modena, Italy and his collaborator Reggio Emilia have used a stem cell-based gene therapy to treat an inherited skin disorder.

Epidermolysis bullosa is a painful skin disorder that causes the skin to be very fragile and blister easily. These blisters can lead to life-threatening infections. Unfortunately, no cure exists for this condition and most treatments try to alleviate the symptoms and infections.

Stem cell-based therapy seems to be one of the best ways to treat this disease, there are no clinical studies that have examined the long-term outcomes of such a treatment.

However, De Luca and his colleagues have examined a particular patients with epidermolysis bullosa who was treated with a stem cell-based gene therapy nearly seven years ago as part of a clinical trial.

The treatment of this patient has established that transplantation of a small quantity of stem cells into the skin on this patient’s legs restored normal skin function without causing any adverse side effects.

“These findings pave the way for the future safe use of epidermal stem cells for combined cell and gene therapy of epidermolysis bullosa and other genetic skin diseases,” said Michele De Luca.

De Luca and his research team found that their treatment of their patient, named Claudio, caused the skin covering his upper legs to looker normal and show no signs of blisters. To treat Claudio, De Luca and his colleague extracted skin cells from Claudio’s palm, used genetic engineering techniques to correct the genetic defect in the cells, and then transplanted these cells back into the skin of his upper legs. This was part of a clinical trial conducted at the University of Modena.

Claudio’s legs also showed no signs of tumors and the small number of transplanted cells sufficiently repaired Claudio’s skin long-term. Keep in mind that Claudio’s skin cells had undergone approximately 80 cycles of cell division and still had many of the features of palm skin cells, they show proper elasticity and strength and did not blister.

“This finding suggests that adult stem cell primarily regenerate the tissue in which they normally reside, with little plasticity to regenerate other tissues,” De Luca said. “This calls into question the supposed plasticity of adult stem cells and highlights the need to carefully chose the right type of stem cell for therapeutic tissue regeneration.”

I think De Luca slightly overstates his case here. Certainly choosing the right stem cells is crucial for successful stem cell treatments, but to take stem cells from skin, which are dedicated to making skin and expect them to form other tissues is unreasonable. However, several experiments have shown that stem cells from hair follicles and form neural tissues and several other cell types as well (see Jaks V, Kasper M, Toftgård R. The hair follicle-a stem cell zoo. Exp Cell Res. 2010 May 1;316(8):1422-8).

Adult stem cells have limited plasticity to be sure, but their plasticity is far greater than originally thought and a wealth of experiments have established that.

Despite these quibbles, this is a remarkable experiment that illustrates the feasibility and safety of such a treatment.  A larger problem is that large quantities of cells will be required to treat a person.  It is doubtful that small skin biopsies around the body can provide enough cells to treat the whole person.  Therefore, this might a case for induced pluripotent skin cells, which seriously complicates this treatment strategy.

Cancer Stem Cell Research Leads to Clinical Trials

Dennis Slamon and Zev Wainberg from the UCLA Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research have been awarded a Disease Team Therapy Development award to begin clinical trials in human patients early in 2014.

In this clinical trial, Slamon and Wainberg will test a new drug that targets cancer stem cells. This drug was developed by research and development over the last decade on the cancer stem cell hypothesis. The cancer stem cell hypothesis predicts that proliferating stem cells are the main drivers of tumor growth and are also resistant to standard cancer treatments.  This new drug, CFI-400945, has prevented cancer growth in an extensive series of laboratory animal tests.

An important extension of the cancer stem cell hypothesis is that cancer stem cells inhabit a particular niche that prevents anticancer drugs from reaching them. Alternatively, tumors become resistant to cancer drugs by a process called “cell fate decision,” in which some cancer stem cells are killed by chemotherapy, but other cells replace them and repopulate the tumor. This tumor repopulation is the main reason for cancer recurrence.

The new anticancer drug to be tested in this clinical trial targets the “polo-like kinase 4.” Inhibition of this enzyme effectively blocks cell fate decisions that cause cancer stem cell renewal and tumor cell growth. Thus inhibition of this enzyme effectively stops tumor growth.

This clinical trial will test this novel chemotherapeutic agent in patients to establish the safety of the drug. After these initial safety tests, the trial will quickly proceed to further clinical tests. “We are excited to continue to test this drug in humans for the first time,” said Wainberg. Slamon, Wainberg and others will also look for biological markers to determine how well their drug is working in each patient.

The US Food and Drug Administration approved the Investigational New Drug (IND) for this drug trial. Also, Health Canada, the Canadian government’s therapeutic regulatory agency, also approved this trial. These approvals are part of an international effort to bring leading-edge stem cell science to patients.

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Recapitulate ALS in Culture and Suggest New Treatment

Induced pluripotent stem cells are made from the adult cells of an individual by means of genetic engineering techniques. After introducing four different genes into adult cells, some of the cells de-differentiate to form cells that grow indefinitely in culture and have most of the characteristics of embryonic stem cells. However, if iPSCs are made from a patient who suffers from a genetic disease, then those stem cells will have the same mutation as the patient, and any derivatives of those iPSCs will show the same behaviors and pathologies of the tissues from the patient. This strategy is called the “disease in a dish” model and it is being increasingly used to make seminal discoveries about diseases and treatment strategies.

Scientists from Cedars-Sinai Regenerative Medicine Institute have used iPSC technology to study Lou Gehrig’s disease, and their research has provided a new approach to treat this horrific, debilitating disease.

Because I have previously written about Lou Gehrig’s disease or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), I will not describe it further.

Cedar Sinai scientists isolated skin scrapings from each patient and used the skin fibroblasts from each sample to make iPSCs. According to Dhruv Sareen, the director of the iPSC facility and faculty research scientist with the Department of Biomedical Sciences and the first author on this article, skins cells of patients who have ALS were converted into motor neurons that retained the genetic defects of the disease, thanks to iPSC technology. Then they focused on gene called C9ORF72, which was found to be the most common cause of familial ALS and frontotemporal lobar disease, and is even responsible for some cases of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Mutations in a gene that has the very non-descriptive name “chromosome 9 open reading frame 72” or C9ORF72 for short seems to play a central role in the onset of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mutations in C9orf72 have been linked with familial frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). FTD is a brain disorder that typically leads to dementia and sometimes occurs in tandem with ALS.

Mutations in C9ORF72 result from the expansion of a hexanucleotide repeat GGGGCC. When the C9ORF72 gene is replicated, the enzyme that replicates DNA (DNA polymerase) has a tendency to slip when comes to this stretch of nucleotides and this polymerase slip causes the hexanucleotide GGGGCC sequence to wax and wane (expand and shrink). Normally, there are up to 30 repeats of this GGGCC sequence, but in people with mutations in C9ORF72, this GGGGCC repeat can occur many hundreds of times. Massive expansions of the GGGGCC repeat interferes with normal expression of the protein made by C9ORF72. The presence of messenger RNAs (mRNAs) with multiple copies of GGGGCC in the nucleus and cytoplasm is toxic to the cell, since it gums up protein synthesis, RNA processing and other RNA-dependent functions. Also the lack of half of the C9ORF72 protein contributes to the symptoms of this conditions.

Robert Baloh, director of Cedars-Sinai’s Neuromuscular Division and the lead researcher of this research project, said, “We think this buildup of thousands of copies of the repeated sequence GGGGCC in the nucleus of patient’s cells may become toxic by altering the normal behavior of other genes in the motor neurons. Because our studies supported the toxic RNA mechanism theory, we used to small segments of genetic material called antisense oligonucleotides – ASOs – to block the buildup and degrade the toxic RNA. One ASO knocked down overall C9ORF72 levels. The other knocked down the toxic RNA coming from the gene without suppressing overall gene expression levels. The absence of potentially toxic RNA, and no evidence of detrimental effect on the motor neurons, provides a strong basis for using this strategy to treat patients suffering from these diseases.”

Baloh continued: “In a sense, this represents the full spectrum of what we are trying to accomplish with patient-based stem cell modeling. It gives researchers the opportunity to conduct extensive studies of a disease’s genetic and molecular makeup and develop potential treatments in the laboratory before translating them into patient trials.”

Researchers from another institution recently began a phase one clinical trial that used a similar ASO strategy to treat ALS caused by a different mutation. No safety issues were reported in this clinical trial.

Clive Svendsen, director of the Regenerative Medicine Institute and one of the authors, has investigated ALS for more than a decade, said, “ALS may be the cruelest, most severe neurological disease, but I believe the stem cell approach used in this collaborative effort holds the key to unlocking the mysteries of the and other devastating disorders. Within the Regenerative Medicine Institute, we are exploring several other stem cell-based strategies in search of treatments and cures.”

ALS affects 30,000-50,000 people in the US alone, but unlike other neurodegenerative diseases, it is almost always fatal within three to five years.

Tendon Stem Cells to Repair Torn Tendons

The Australian regenerative medicine company Orthocell Limited has announced the results of their recent clinical trial in which a patented Orthocell stem cell technology was used to repair torn tendons.

Tendon injuries are one of the most common causes of occupational- and sports-related disabilities. Current clinical treatments are not terribly effective. Orthocell’s new technique, autologous tenocyte implantation (Ortho-ATIT) uses biopsies of healthy tendons, isolation and cultivation of tendon stem cells (tenocytes), and re-injection of those cells into the injured tendon. The injection process takes about 20 minutes and is less invasive than surgery.


The data from this clinical trial confirm that Ortho-ATIT is safe and effective at relieving pain and repairing tendon injuries. The patients in this study had failed at least one previous therapy, including physiotherapy and corticosteroid injections. However as a result of being treated with Ortho-ATIT, patients achieved significant improvement in tendon function and structural integrity.

Orthocell Managing Director Paul Anderson said that the clinical study indicates great potential for the Ortho-ATIT stem cell-based tendon repair technology.

Anderson said, “We are now focusing our efforts on offering this world class treatment more widely to patients throughout Australasia, and we are also investigating new potential markets overseas.”

Ortho-ATIT is the result of over 10 years of research and development by Professor Ming Hao Zheng‘s research group at the Centre for Translational Orthopaedic Research at the University of Western Australia.

Amanda Redwood, a 45-year old mother of two children who participated in this clinical trial said that Ortho-ATIT relieved her severe elbow pain within six months. Redwood said, “I experienced debilitating symptoms of tennis elbow for more than 16 months before I had the procedure. Within six weeks of the injection the pain started to subside and within 6 months it was gone.”

Ortho-ATIT has been approved by the Therapeutics Good Administration (TGA) in Australia. The technology is available to patients in Australasia who have failed conservative treatment.