Capricor Therapeutics Enrolls Patients in HOPE Clinical Trial

The Beverly Hills-based biotechnology company Capricor Therapeutics, Inc. (CAPR) has announced the enrollment of 25 patients for their randomized Phase 1/2 HOPE-Duchenne clinical trial.

“HOPE” stands for “Halt cardiomyOPathy progrEssion in Duchenne” Muscular Dystrophy. The HOPE trial will evaluate the company’s CAP-1002 investigational cardiac cell therapy in patients suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD)-associated cardiomyopathy. If all goes as planned, CAPR expects to the first data points from this trial in six months (first quarter of 2017).

DMD most seriously affects skeletal muscle, but the disease can also devastate heart muscle. In fact, the most common cause of death from DMD results from the consequences of the disease on heart muscle.

The HOPE trial will assess the safety and efficacy of CAP-1002 in these 25 patients.

In DMD patients, scar tissue gradually accumulates in the heart, which leads to a deterioration of cardiac function.

CAP-1002 consists of cells donated from the hearts of healthy volunteers. These “cardiosphere-derived cells” or CDCs, have been shown by work in the laboratory of Dr. Eduardo Marbán, Director of the Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, to reduce scar tissue in damaged hearts and improve heart function in studies with laboratory animals. Furthermore, a clinical study with CDCs, the CADUCEUS study, showed that the reduction of heart scar tissue in patients given infusions of CDCs. Therefore CAD-1002 might be the only therapeutic agent that can potentially reduce scar tissue in the damaged heart.

The HOPE trial enrolled 25 boys with DMD who were at least 12 years of age at the time of screening and who show signs of DMD-associated cardiomyopathy. These boys all have significant scar tissue in at least four left ventricular segments, according to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Of these 25 subjects, 13 subjects were randomly assigned to receive CAP-1002 by means of intracoronary infusion into each of the three main coronary arteries in a single procedure.

The 12 subjects randomized to the control arm received usual care and received no such infusion.

Efficacy of CAD-1002 will be assessed by means of specified secondary outcome measures that include absolute and relative changes in cardiac scar tissue and cardiac function as measured by MRI, performance on the Six-Minute Walk Test (6MWT) and the Performance of the Upper Limb (PUL), and scoring on the Pediatric Quality of Life Inventory (PedsQL).

The HOPE trial is a multicenter study; it is being conducted at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles, Calif., and the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla.

DMD is a genetically inherited condition. The dystrophin gene that is abnormal in DMD patients is on the X chromosome, and therefore, the vast majority of DMD patients are male. DMD afflicts approximately 20,000 boys and young men in the U.S. The dystrophin complex is a structural component of muscles, integral to the integrity of muscle fibers. Abnormalities in dystrophin leads to chronic skeletal and cardiac muscle damage.

Muscular Dystrophy is a Stem Cell-Based Disease

Michael Rudnicki, who has done pioneering work in muscle stem cell biology and muscle regeneration, and whose work has been featured several times on this blog, has struck again. Rudnicki, who serves as director of the Regenerative Medicine Program at The Ottawa Hospital and a professor at the University of Ottawa and holds the prestigious Canada Research Chair in Molecular Genetics, teamed up with workers from the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research and the Sinclair Centre for Regenerative Medicine to investigate the role of muscle-specific stem cells in patients who suffer from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. This new earth-shaking study, which was published in the journal Nature Medicine (November 16, 2015), has changed the way we think about muscular dystrophy and will almost certainly force people to rethink the treatments and cures for this dreadful disease.

According to this new study, Duchenne muscular dystrophy directly affects muscle stem cells, and is, largely a disease of muscle stem cells.

Rudicki said: “For nearly 20 years, we’ve thought that the muscle weakness observed in patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy is primarily due to problems in their muscle fibers, but our research shows that it is also due to intrinsic defects in the function of their muscle stem cells. This completely changes our understanding of Duchenne muscular dystrophy and could eventually lead to far more effective treatments.”

Muscular dystrophy comes in several different forms, but the predominant sign of muscular dystrophy is progressive muscle weakness. Altogether, muscular dystrophy refers to a group of more than 30 genetic diseases, all of which cause progressive weakness and degeneration of skeletal muscles used during voluntary movement. Approximately half of all who suffer from muscular dystrophy have Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). Because muscular dystrophy results from mutations in the dystrophin gene, which is on the X chromosome, the vast majority of muscular dystrophy patients are male. Girls can be carriers of muscular dystrophy and can be mildly affected.

Interestingly, somewhere around one-third of boys who suffer from DMD have no family history of the disease. Because the dystrophin gene is so large, spontaneous mutations in it are probably relatively common.

The signs and symptoms typically appear between the ages of 2 and 3, and may include frequent falls, difficulty getting up from a lying or sitting position, trouble running and jumping, a strange, shuffling way of walking or having a tendency to walk on their toes, calf muscles that are abnormally large, muscle pain and stiffness, and some learning disabilities.

Becker muscular dystrophy (BMD) has signs and symptoms that are largely similar to those of DMD, but BMD tends to be a milder form of the disease that progresses more slowly. Symptoms typically begin in the teens but, some patients may not experience symptoms until their mid-20s and some may not experience symptoms until later.

There are also several different types of muscular dystrophy-type diseases. Steinert’s disease or myotonic muscular dystrophy, which is characterized by an inability to relax muscles at after contractions, is the most common form of adult-onset muscular dystrophy. The first muscles to be affected are the muscles of the face and neck. Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy affects the muscles of the face and shoulders, where symptoms first begin. When patients with facioscapulohumeral raise their arms, their shoulder blades noticeably protrude. This disease may first manifest itself in children, teenagers as late as age 40. This disease tends to affect one side more than the other.

Limb-girdle muscular dystrophy affects the muscles of the shoulders and hips. There are over 20 inherited forms of this disease, and because this condition is not due to mutations in dystrophin, but to mutations in genes that encode proteins that interact with dystrophin, the inheritance of limb-girdle muscular dystrophy is not sex-linked. Some forms of this disease are recessive and some are dominant. Patients with this type of muscular dystrophy usually trip more often because they have trouble raising the front part of their feet. Some autosomal recessive forms of the disorder are now known to be due to a deficits in proteins called sarcoglycans or dystroglycan.

Congenital muscular dystrophy is extremely varible and is probably a cluster of several different diseases caused by mutations in different genes. Some of types of congenital muscular dystrophy show sex-linked inheritance while others do not. Most cases of congenital muscular dystrophy result from the absence of a muscle protein called merosin, which is found in the connective tissue that surrounds muscle fibers. Other types of congenital muscular dystrophy have normal merosin and still others result from abnormal motor neuron migration. Clinically, this disease is also extremely variable and can manifest itself at birth or before age 2, progress slowly or rapidly, and cause mild disability or severe impairment.

Muscular dystrophy affects all ethnic groups and occurs globally. It affects around 1 in every 3,500 to 6,000 male births each year in the United States.  DMD affects approximately one in 3,600 boys.

Because DMD results from mutations in the dystrophin gene, the vast majority of muscular dystrophy research was based on a simple model in which the Dystrophin protein played a structural role in the structural integrity of muscle fibers. Abnormal versions of the Dystrophin protein caused the muscle fibers to become damaged and die as a result of contraction.  Dystrophin anchors the cytoskeleton of the muscle fibers, which are essential for muscle contraction, to the muscle cell membrane, and then to the extracellular matrix outside the cell that serves as a foundation upon which the muscle cells are built.


However in this current study, Rudnicki and his team discovered that muscle stem cells also express the dystrophin protein. This is a revelation because Dystrophin was thought to be protein that ONLY appeared in mature muscle. However, in this study, it became exceedingly clear that in the absence of Dystrophin, muscle stem cells generated ten-fold fewer muscle precursor cells, and, consequently, far fewer functional muscle fibers. Dystrophin is also a component of a signal transduction pathway that allows muscle stem cells to properly ascertain if they need to replace dead or dying muscle.  Muscle stem cells repair the muscle in response to injury or exercise by dividing to generate precursor cells that differentiate into muscle fibers.

“Muscle stem cells that lack dystrophin cannot tell which way is up and which way is down,” said Dr. Rudnicki. “This is crucial because muscle stem cells need to sense their environment to decide whether to produce more stem cells or to form new muscle fibres. Without this information, muscle stem cells cannot divide properly and cannot properly repair damaged muscle.”

Even though Rudnicki used mice as a model system in these experiments, the Dystrophin protein is highly conserved in most vertebrate animals. Therefore, it is highly likely that these results will also apply to human muscle stem cells.

Treatment for DMD patients is limited to steroids to decrease muscle inflammation and muscle cell death, and physical therapy to increase muscle use and prevent muscle atrophy. These approaches only delay the progression of the disease and alleviate symptoms. Gene therapy experiments and trials are in progress and even show some promise, but Rudnicki’s work tell us that gene therapy approaches must target muscle stem cells as well as muscle fibers if they are to work properly.

“We’re already looking at approaches to correct this problem in muscle stem cells,” said Dr. Rudnicki. “I’m not sure if we will ever cure Duchenne muscular dystrophy, but I’m very hopeful that someday in the future, we will have new therapies that correct the ability of muscle stem cells to repair the muscles of afflicted patients and turn this devastating, lethal disease into a chronic but manageable condition.”

This paper has received high praise from the likes of Ronald Worton, who was one of the co-discovers of the dystrophin gene with Louis Kunkel in 1987.  Worton later served as Vice-President of Research at The Ottawa Hospital from 1996 to 2007.

“When we discovered the gene for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, there was great hope that we would be able to develop a new treatment fairly quickly,” said Dr. Worton, who is now retired. “This has been much more difficult than we initially thought, but Dr. Rudnicki’s research is a major breakthrough that should renew hope for researchers, patients and families.”

New Gene Therapy Effectively Treats All Muscles in Dogs With Muscular Dystrophy

The X-linked genetic disease, muscular dystrophy, affects the structure and function of skeletal muscles. Muscular dystrophy patients harbor mutations in a gene that encodes a protein known as dystrophin. Dystrophin attaches the internal skeleton of skeletal muscle cells to the cell membrane. In turn, proteins in the skeletal muscle membrane attach to the intracellular matrix that acts as the foundational material upon which muscle cells (and other cells) sit. Therefore, the dystrophin protein serves to attach skeletal muscle cells to the extracellular matrix. The loss of dystrophin causes muscles to separate from the cell matrix and detach from each other. The lack of attachment of muscles to each other causes them to degenerate and die.


The death of skeletal muscles in muscular dystrophy patients leads to the replacement of what was once skeletal muscle with scar tissue, fatty tissue, or even bone. Because muscular dystrophy is caused by mutations in an X-linked gene, the majority of muscular dystrophy patients are boys. The losses of muscle structure, function, and mass cause patients to lose their ability to walk and eventually breath (since the diaphragm is a skeletal muscle) as they age. Thus muscular dystrophy tends to put patients in wheelchairs and condemn them to respirators.

The most common form of muscular dystrophy is called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy or DMD. Close to 250,000 people in the United States suffer from muscular dystrophy. Treatment options are very limited and usually palliative. However, a research team from the University of Missouri has successfully treated dogs that suffer from DMD. They are optimistic that human clinical trials can be planned in the next few years.

This is a remarkable finding, especially, when you consider that the dystrophin gene is extremely large. In fact, the dystrophin gene is the largest gene in the human genome. This makes gene therapy treatments for DMD problematic.

Dongsheng Duan, who serves as the lead scientist in this study, and is the Margaret Proctor Mulligan Professor in Medical Research at the MU School of Medicine “This is the most common muscle disease in boys, and there is currently no effective therapy. This discovery took our research team more than 10 years, but we believe we are on the cusp of having a treatment for the disease.

Duan continued: “Due to its size, it is impossible to deliver the entire gene with a gene therapy vector, which is the vehicle that carries the therapeutic gene to the correct site in the body,” Duan said. “Through previous research, we were able to develop a miniature version of this gene called a microgene. This minimized dystrophin protected all muscles in the body of diseased mice.”

Duan and his colleagues worked for almost ten years to develop a viable strategy that can safely transfer the micro-dystrophin gene to every muscle in a the body of dogs that have a canine form of DMD. Dogs are an excellent model system for human medicine, since dogs are about the same size as a human boy. Successful treatment of DMA dogs can provide the foundation for human clinical trials.

In this new study, Duan and his team demonstrated that by using a common virus to deliver the micro-dystrophin gene to all the muscles in the body of a diseased dog. Duan and others injected DMA dogs with this genetically engineered virus when they were two-three months old. For dogs, this is about the time when they begin to show some of the DMD-associated signs and symptoms. Now, these dogs are six-seven months old and they are experiencing normal development and muscular activity.

“The virus we are using is one of the most common viruses; it is also a virus that produces no symptoms in the human body, making this a safe way to spread the dystrophin gene throughout the body,” Duan said. “These dogs develop DMD naturally in a similar manner as humans. It’s important to treat DMD early before the disease does a lot of damage as this therapy has the greatest impact at the early stages in life.”

Fat-Derived Stem Cells Form Muscle in Muscular Dystrophy Mice

Stem cell therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) has been plagued by poor cell engraftment into diseased muscles. Additionally, there are no reports to date describing the efficient generation of muscle progenitors from fat-derived stem cells (ADSCs) that can contribute to muscle regeneration.

A study by Cheng Zhang and others from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, Guangdong Province has examined the ability of progenitor cells differentiated from ADSCs using forskolin, basic fibroblast growth factor, the glycogen synthase kinase 3β inhibitor 6-bromoindirubin-3′-oxime as well as the supernatant of ADSC cultures to form workable muscle cells.

When these fat-derived stem cells were treated as described above, they formed a proliferative population of muscle progenitors from ADSCs that had characteristics similar to muscle satellite cells. Furthermore, in culture, these cells were capable of terminal differentiation into multinucleated myotubes.

When these fat-derived stem cells were transplanted into mice that had an inherited type of DMD, the progenitor cells successfully engrafted in skeletal muscle for up to 12 weeks, and generated new muscle fibers, restored dystrophin expression, and contributed to the satellite cell compartment.

These findings highlight the potential application of ADSCs for the treatment of muscular dystrophy. They also illustrate the ability of ADSCs to differentiate into functional skeletal muscle cells when treated properly in culture. These same cells might serve as a treatment for DMD patients.

This article was published in Hum. Mol. Genet. (2015) doi: 10.1093/hmg/ddv316.

Muscle Wasting in Muscular Dystrophy Due to Defective Muscle Stem Cells, But Can Be Treated with Blood Pressure Drug

By utilizing a mouse model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have compared gene expression differences between muscle stem cells from DMD mice and muscle stem cells from non-DMD mice. Muscle stem cells from DMD mice express connective-tissue genes associated with fibrosis and muscle weakness as opposed to those from non-DMD mice.

DMD mice, just like their human counterparts, experience progressive muscle degeneration and accumulate connective tissue within the muscle as they age. This new study strongly suggests that the stem cells that surround the muscle fibers might be responsible for this defect. During the course of the disease, muscle stem cells in DMD mice become less able to make new muscle and instead begin to express genes involved in the formation of connective tissue. Excess connective tissue causes scarring (a condition called fibrosis), and these excess scars can accumulate in other organs besides muscle, including the lungs, liver and heart. In the skeletal muscles of people with muscular dystrophy, scarring impairs muscle function and leads to increasing weakness and stiffness, which are hallmarks of the disease.

In addition to this discovery, Thomas Rando, professor of neurology at Stanford University Medical School, and his colleagues showed that these abnormal changes in muscle stem cells could be prevented in laboratory mice by giving the animals a drug that is already approved for use in humans. This drug blocks a signaling pathway involved in the development of fibrosis. Of course more work is required, but scientists are hopeful that a similar approach may one day help treat children with muscular dystrophy.

“These cells are losing their ability to produce muscle, and are beginning to look more like fibroblasts, which secrete connective tissue,” said Dr. Rando. “It’s possible that if we could prevent this transition in the muscle stem cells, we could slow or ameliorate the fibrosis seen in muscular dystrophy in humans.”

Rando and his coworkers published their findings in Science Translational Medicine. Rando, who is the senior author of this paper, is also the director of the Glenn Laboratories for the Biology of Aging and is also the founding director of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Clinic at Stanford. Rando’s former postdoctoral scholar Stefano Biressi, who is presently at the Centre for Integrative Biology at the University of Trento in Italy, is the lead author of this paper.

DMD is a truly devastating disease that affects about 1 in every 3,600 boys born in the United States. The hallmark of this disease is the severe, progressive muscle weakness that confines patients to a wheelchair by early adolescence and eventually leads to paralysis. Mutations in the dystrophin gene cause DMD. The dystrophin gene encodes the Dystrophin protein, which connects muscle fibers to the surrounding external matrix, which stabilizes the fibers, enhances their strength and prevents their injury. Mutations in the dystrophin gene cause production of defective copies of the dystrophin protein. Without functional copies of Dystrophin, the unanchored muscle is unstable, weak, and subject to constant injury. DMD patients are almost always boys because the dystrophin gene is located on the X chromosome. Girls must inherit two faulty copies of the dystrophin gene to contract DMD, which is unlikely because male carriers often die in early adulthood.

By decelerating the fibrotic activity of muscle stem cells in DMD patients, it is possible to delay or even fix the scarring observed in human DMD patients. Normally, muscle stem cells are stimulated when muscles are damaged, and they divide into new cells, some of which form new muscle. In DMD mice, however, muscle stem cells the lack a functional copy of the dystrophin gene slowly begin to resemble fibroblasts instead of muscle-making stem cells.

In this study, Biressi and Rando used a strain of laboratory mice in which the muscle stem cells express a glowing protein when they are treated with a drug called tamoxifen. These glowing mice were then mated with another mouse strain that had a defective copy of the dystrophin gene. These DMD mice now had muscle stem cells that glowed when treated with tamoxifen, which allowed Biressi, Rando and others to trace the movements and activities of muscle stem cells. They discovered that the expression of myogenic genes associated with the regeneration of muscle in response to injury was nearly completely lacking in many of the muscle stem cells in the mice after just 11 months. However, the expression of fibrotic genes had increased compared with that of control animals. The muscle stem cells from the DMD animals were also oddly located, since instead of being nestled next to the muscle fibers where they normally are found, they had begun to move away into the spaces between tissues.

Such increased fibrosis is also observed during normal aging and this process is governed by signaling proteins, which include the Wnt and TGF-beta protein families. Wnt plays a critical role in embryonic development and cancer; TGF-beta controls cell division and specialization. Rando and Biressi hypothesized that inhibiting the Wnt/TGF-beta pathway in DMD would inhibit fibrosis in the animals’ muscles.

To do this, they turned to a blood pressure medicine called losartan. Losartan inhibits the expression of the genes for TGF-beta types 1 and 2, and therefore, might interrupt the signaling pathway that leads the muscle stem cells astray. When DMD mice were treated with losartan, the drug prevented the muscle stem cells from expressing fibrosis-associated genes and partially maintained their ability to form new muscle.

“This scar tissue, or fibrosis, leaves the muscle less elastic and impairs muscle function,” Rando said. “So we’d like to understand why it happens, and how to prevent it. It’s also important to limit fibrosis to increase the likelihood of success with other possible therapies, such as cell therapy or gene therapy.”

TGF-beta-1 is an important signaling molecule throughout the body. Therefore, researchers are now working to find ways to specifically inhibit TGF-beta-2, which is involved in the transition of the muscle stem cells from muscle makers to scar producers. They’re also interested in learning how to translate the research to other diseases.

“Fibrosis seems to occur in a vicious cycle,” Rando said. “As the muscle stem cells become less able to regenerate new muscle, the tissue is less able to repair itself after damage. This leads to fibrosis, which then further impairs muscle formation. Understanding the biological basis of fibrosis could have a profound effect on many other diseases.”

Gene Editing in iPS Cells Corrects Genetic Mutations That Cause Muscular Dystrophy

Induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs have many of the same characteristics as embryonic stem cells. One such feature is the ability to be grown in culture and manipulated like genuine tissue culture cells.

To that end a research group at the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) have used iPSCs made from the cells of patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) to show that such mutations can be efficiently fixed.

This research, which was published in Stem Cell Reports, demonstrates how a new group of engineered nucleases, such as TALEN and CRISPR, can edit the genome of iPS cells generated from skin cells isolated from a DMD patient. After being genetically fixed, these iPSCs were differentiated into skeletal muscles, and it was clear that the mutation responsible for DMD had disappeared.

DMD is a severe muscular degenerative disease caused by loss-of-function mutations in the dystrophin gene. DMD affects 1 in 3500 boys and normally leads to death by early adulthood. The treatments for this disease are largely palliative.

However, the capability to edit the genomes of mutant cells is a formerly unknown option that was once only for the realms of science fiction. Two nucleated called TALEN and CRISPR have quickly become invaluable tools in molecular biology. These enzymes allow scientists to cleave genes at specific locations and then modify the cut ends to generate a specifically chosen genomic sequence. However, these programmable nucleases are not perfect and often mistakenly edit similar sequences that vary a few base pairs from the target sequence. This makes them unreliable for clinical use because of the potential for creating new, undesired mutations.

For precisely this reason, iPSCs are ideal model systems because they provide researchers an abundance of patient cells on which to test the programmable nucleated, and determine the optimal conditions that minimize off-target modifications. CiRA scientists used this very feature to generating iPS cells from a DMD patient. Then they utilized several different TALENs and CRISPRs to modify the genome of the iPS cells, which were then differentiated into skeletal muscle cells. In all cases, dystrophin protein expression was restored, and in some cases, the dystrophin gene was fully corrected.

One of the reasons for the success in this project was the development of a computational protocol that minimized the risk of off-target editing. The CiRA team built a database that contained all possible combination of sequences up to 16 base pairs long. Among these, they isolated those sequences that only appear once in the human genome. DMD can be caused by several different mutations. For example, in the case of the patient used in this study, it was the result of the deletion of exon 44. After building a histogram of unique sequences that appeared in a genomic region that contained this exon, the CiRA group found a cluster of unique sequences in exon 45.

The head researcher for this project, Akitsu Hotta, who headed the project and holds joint positions at CiRA and the Institute for Integrated Cell-Materials Sciences at Kyoto University, said:  “Nearly half the human genome consists of repeated sequences. So even if we found one unique sequence, a change of one or two base pairs may result in these other repeated sequences, which risks the TALEN or CRISPR editing an incorrect region. To avoid this problem, we sought a region that hit high in the histogram.”

This paper provides a proof-of-principle for using iPS cell technology to treat DMD in combination with TALEN or CRISPR. The group now aims to expand this protocol to other diseases.  First author Lisa Li explains, “We show that TALEN and CRISPR can be used to correct the mutation of the DMD gene. I want to apply the nucleases to correct mutations for other genetic-based diseases like point mutations”.

Cardiac Stem Cells or their Exosomes Heal Heart Damage Caused by Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

One of the research institutions that has been at the forefront of developing investigational stem cell treatments for heart attack patients is The Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute. Recently, a research team at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute (CSHI) has injected cardiac stem cells into the hearts of laboratory mice afflicted with a rodent form of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. This disease can also adversely affect the heart, and these stem cell injections actually improved the heart function of these laboratory animals and resulted in greater survival rates for those mice. This work might provide the means to extend the lives and improve the quality of life of patients with this chronic muscle-wasting disease.

The CSHI team presented their results at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions in Chicago. Their results clearly demonstrated that once laboratory mice with Duchenne muscular dystrophy were infused with cardiac stem cells, the animals showed progressive and significant improvements in heart function and increased exercise capacity.

Specifically, 78 lab mice that had been given laboratory-induced heart attacks were injected with their own cardiac stem cells, and over the next three months, these mice demonstrated improved pumping ability and exercise capacity in addition to a reduction in heart-specific inflammation. The CSHI team also discovered that the stem cells work indirectly, by secreting tiny vesicles called exosomes that are filled with molecules that induce tissue healing. When these exosomes were purified and administered alone, they reproduced the key benefits of the cardiac stem cells.

Apparently, this particular procedure could be ready for testing in human clinical studies as soon as next year.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy or DMD is a genetic disease that results from mutations in a gene found on the X chromosome in humans. DMD affects 1 in 3,600 boys and is a neuromuscular disease caused by abnormalities in a muscle protein called dystrophin.  Because dystrophin is an important structural protein for muscle that anchors muscle to other muscles and to the substratum, deficiencies for functional copies of the dystrophin protein cause progressive muscle wasting, destruction, and muscle weakness.

Dystrophin acts as an important link between the internal cytoskeleton and the extracellular matrix. Neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS) binds to α-syntrophin but also has a binding site in repeat 17 of the rod domain of dystrophin (see Fig. 2A for details of dystrophin domains). αDG, α-dystroglycan; βDG, β-dystroglycan
Dystrophin acts as an important link between the internal cytoskeleton and the extracellular matrix. Neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS) binds to α-syntrophin but also has a binding site in repeat 17 of the rod domain of dystrophin (see Fig. 2A for details of dystrophin domains). αDG, α-dystroglycan; βDG, β-dystroglycan.  See here

The majority of DMD patients lose their ability to walk by twelve years of age, although the severity of the disease varies from patient to patient. The average life expectancy is about 25, and the cause of death is usually heart failure. Dystrophin deficiency causes heart muscle weakness, and, ultimately, heart insufficiency, since the chronic weakness of the heart muscle prevents the heart from pumping enough blood to maintain a regular heart rhythm and provide for the needs of the rest of the body. Such a heart condition is called “cardiomyopathy.”

“Most research into treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy patients has focused on the skeletal muscle aspects of the disease, but more often than not, the cause of death has been the heart failure that affects Duchenne patients,” said Eduardo Marbán, MD, PhD, who is the director of the CSHI and the principal investigator of this particular study. “Currently, there is no treatment to address the loss of functional heart muscle in these patients.”

In 2009, Marbán and his team completed the world’s first procedure in which a patient’s own heart tissue was used to grow specialized heart stem cells. Stem cells from the heart were isolated, cultured, and then injected back into the patient’s heart in order to repair and regrow healthy heart muscle that had been injured by a heart attack. Results, Marbán and his colleagues published these results in The Lancet in 2012, and also demonstrated that one year after their patients had received the experimental stem cell treatment, they showed significant reductions in the size of the heart scar that had been produced by their heart attacks.

Earlier this year, CSHI researchers commenced a new clinical trial entitled “ALLSTAR,” which stands for Allogeneic Heart Stem Cells to Achieve Myocardial Regeneration (Clinical trial number NCT01458405). In this study, heart attack patients are given injections of stem cells from healthy donors, which should work better than the patient’s own stem cells, which were damaged by the heart attack.

CSHI has recently opened the nation’s first Regenerative Medicine Clinic, which is designed to match heart and vascular disease patients with the appropriate stem cell clinical trial being conducted at CSHI and other institutions.

“We are committed to thoroughly investigating whether stem cells could repair heart damage caused by Duchenne muscular dystrophy,” Marbán said.

The protocols for growing cardiac-derived stem cells were developed by Marbán when he was on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University. Johns Hopkins has filed for a patent on that intellectual property and has licensed it to Capricor, a company in which Cedars-Sinai and Marbán have a financial interest. Capricor is providing funds for the ALLSTAR clinical trial at Cedars-Sinai.

Repairing Muscles in Muscular Dystrophy Depends on the Degree of Muscle Deterioration

Pier Lorenzo Puri, M.D., an associate professor at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute (Sanford-Burnham), has led a research team that work in collaboration with Fondazione Santa Lucia in Rome, Italy, to characterize the mechanism by which a class of drugs called “HDACis” drive muscle-cell regeneration in the early stages of dystrophic muscles, but fail to work in late stages. These findings are integral for designing HDACis drugs for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), which presently, is an incurable muscle-wasting disease.

Puri’s research was published April 15th, 2014 edition of the journal Genes and Development. In their paper, Puri and his colleagues used mouse models of DMD to show how special cells known as “fibro-adipogenic progenitor cells” or FAPs, direct muscle regeneration. FAPs reside in the spaces between muscle fibers and detect those cues that indicate that muscles have been damaged. In response to muscle damage, FAPs direct muscle stem cells, known as satellite cells, to rebuild muscle.

 HDAC inhibitors (HDACi) promote muscle regeneration in a mouse model of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at early stages of disease by targeting fibro-adipogenic progenitors (FAPs). Staining of FAPs from muscles of HDACi-treated young mdx mice reveals presence of differentiated muscle cells (green) at the expense of fat cells (red). Nuclei are stained in blue. Image: Lorenzo Puri, M.D.

HDAC inhibitors (HDACi) promote muscle regeneration in a mouse model of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at early stages of disease by targeting fibro-adipogenic progenitors (FAPs). Staining of FAPs from muscles of HDACi-treated young mdx mice reveals presence of differentiated muscle cells (green) at the expense of fat cells (red). Nuclei are stained in blue. Image: Lorenzo Puri, M.D.

“HDACis create an environment conducive for FAPs to direct muscle regeneration—but only during the early stages of DMD progression in mice,” said Puri. “At some point, DMD progresses to a pathological point of no return and become permanently resistant to muscle-regeneration cures and to HDACis.”

Indeed, Puri’s research showed exactly that; namely that FAPs embedded in muscle that was in the earlier stages of muscular dystrophy responded robustly to HDACis and upregulated a wide range of muscle-specific genes. In contrast, FAPs from late-stage dystrophic muscles were resistant to HDACi-induced muscle-specific gene expression and failed to activate satellite cells.

HDACis stands for histone deacetylase inhibitors. These are epigenetic drugs that regulate the accessibility of those genes that code for muscle proteins. HDACis ensure that the DNA within cells is open and easily accessible to the gene expression machinery. In the presence of FAPs, in particular, rev up their support for muscle regeneration. Under conditions of normal wear and tear, FAPs direct stem cells within the muscle to regenerate and repair damaged muscle. However in patients with DMD, the persistent breakdown of muscle cells creates a chaotic environment that overwhelms the ability of the FAP’s to direct muscle regeneration.

Puri collaborated with Italian colleagues at Fondazione Santa Lucia, Italfarmaco, and Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, an advocacy association. The goal of this research is to develop HDACis for the treatment of DMD. To that end, Puri and others have launched a clinical trial with DMD boys.

“Our study is important because it provides the rationale for the clinical development of HDACis to treat DMD,” said Puri. “And, now that we understand the mechanics and sensitivities of the muscle-regeneration system, we have the rationale and can use new tools to select patients most likely to benefit from HDACIs based on their FAP profile, predict outcomes, and see how long patients should remain on the therapy.”

“Duchenne muscular dystrophy patients and their families rely on important research such as that performed by Dr. Puri,” said Debra Miller, Founder of Cure Duchenne, a patient advocacy group. “Our efforts at Cure Duchenne are to support leading scientists in the world to bring life-saving drugs to help this generation of Duchenne boys, and our vision is to cure Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Every added piece of knowledge about the disease brings us closer to realizing our goals.”

The Puri paper also shows why trying to regenerate muscle cells in severely affected individuals is not feasible, since the dystrophic muscles have deteriorated to the point of no return. This will definitely influence the construction of treatment strategies for patients with muscular dystrophy.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota Use Genetically Corrected Stem Cells To Repair Muscles

University of Minnesota researchers from the Lillehei Heart Institute have combined genetic engineering techniques to repair mutations in abnormal muscle cells with cellular reprogramming to generate stem cells that can repair and regenerate muscle regeneration in a mouse model for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). This research is a proof-of-principle experiment that determines the feasibility of combining induced pluripotent stem cell technology and genetic engineering techniques that correct mutations to treat muscular dystrophy. Experimental strategies such as these could represent a major step forward in autologous cell-based therapies for DMD. Furthermore, it might pave the way for clinical trials to test this approach in reprogrammed human pluripotent cells from muscular dystrophy patients.

University of Minnesota researchers combined three groundbreaking technologies to achieve effective muscular dystrophy therapy in a mouse model of DMD. First, researchers reprogrammed skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). iPSCs are capable of differentiating into any of the mature cell types within an adult organism. In this case, the University of Minnesota researchers generated pluripotent cells from the skin of mice that carry mutations in two genes; the dystrophin and utrophin genes. Mice with mutations in both the dystrophin and utrophin genes develop a severe case of muscular dystrophy that resembles the type of disease observed in human DMD patients. This provided a model system platform that successfully mimicked what would theoretically occur in humans.

The second technology employed is a genetic correction tool developed at the University of Minnesota. In this case, they used a transposon, which is a segment of DNA that can jump from one location to another within the genome. The specific transposon used is the “Sleeping Beauty Transposon.” The use of this transposon allowed them to transport genes into cells in a convenient manner. The Lillehei Heart Institute researchers used the Sleeping Beauty transposon to deliver a gene called “micro-utrophin” into the iPSCs made from the DMD mice.

Sleeping Beauty Transposon

Human micro-utrophin can support muscle fiber strength and prevent muscle fiber injury throughout the body. However, there is one essential difference micro-utrophin and dystrophin: dystrophin is absent in muscular dystrophy patients, but if it is introduced into the bodies of DMD patients, their immune system will initiate a devastating immune response against it. However, in those same patients, utrophin is active and functional, which makes it essentially “invisible” to the immune system. This invisibility allows the micro-utrophin to replace dystrophin build and repair muscle fibers within the body.


The third technology utilized is a method to produce skeletal muscle stem cells from pluripotent cells. This procedure was developed in the laboratory of Rita Perlingeiro, who is also the principal investigator of this latest study.

Rita Perlingeiro Ph.D.
Rita Perlingeiro Ph.D.

Perlingeiro’s technology gives pluripotent cells a short pulse of a muscle stem cell protein called Pax3, which nudges the pluripotent cells to become skeletal muscle stem cells, which can then be exponentially expanded in culture. These Pax3-induced muscle stem cells were then transplanted back into the same strain of DMD mice from which the pluripotent stem cells were originally derived.

Pax3 and 7

When combined, these platforms created muscle-generating stem cells that would not be rejected by the body’s immune system. According to Perlingeiro, the transplanted cells performed very well in the dystrophic mice, and they generated functional muscle and responded to muscle fiber injury.

“We were pleased to find the newly formed myofibers expressed the markers of the correction, including utrophin,” said Perlingeiro, a Lillehei endowed scholar within the Lillehei Heart Institute and an associate professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School. “However, a very important question following transplantation is if these corrected cells would self-renew, and produce new muscle stem cells in addition to the new muscle fibers.”

By injuring the transplanted muscle and watching it repair itself, the researchers demonstrated that the transplanted muscle stem cells endowed the recipient mice with fully functional muscle cells. This latest project provides the proof-of-principle for the feasibility of combining induced pluripotent stem cell technology and genetic correction to treat muscular dystrophy.

“Utilizing corrected induced pluripotent stem cells to target this specific genetic disease proved effective in restoring function,” said Antonio Filareto, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Perlingeiro’s laboratory and the lead author on the study. “These are very exciting times for research on muscular dystrophy therapies.”

These studies pave the way for testing this approach in a clinical trial that would use reprogrammed human pluripotent cells from muscular dystrophy patients.

According to Perlingeiro, “Developing methods to genetically repair muscular dystrophy in human cells, and demonstrating efficacy of muscle derived from these cells are critical near-term milestones, both for the field and for our laboratory. Testing in animal models is essential to developing effective technologies, but we remained focused on bringing these technologies into use in human cells and setting the stage for trials in human patients.”

This research was published in Nature Communications.

Skeletal Muscle Engineering for Degenerative Muscle Disorders

A collaborative effort between researchers in Italy, Israel and the United Kingdom has resulted in the development of a new therapeutic technique to repair and rebuild muscle in those who suffer from degenerative muscle disorders. This therapeutic strategy brings together two existing techniques for muscle repair: 1) cell transplantation; and 2) tissue engineering.

Several different conditions can lead to muscle degeneration or loss of skeletal muscle. Skeletal muscle only has a limited capacity to repair itself. Therefore, strategies for muscle reconstitution and regeneration are often necessary.

There are presently two different ways to rebuild muscle. The first utilizes stem cells that are injected directly into the muscle or injected into the arteries that feed blood into large muscles. Stem cell transplantation often shows limited success because the transplanted cells show poor survival rates. The second method is tissue engineering in which cells are embedded into the muscle on a biodegradable biomaterial scaffold that reconstructs the muscle. In this present study, the authors hoped to increase the rates of stem cell survival by implanting them in hydrogel material.

For this experiment, the research team went with a tried and true method for tissue engineering: polyethylene glycol and fibrinogen (PF) hydrogel scaffolds. PF scaffolds have been successfully employed in several experiments and when stem cells are embedded into these scaffolds, the stem cells survive at very high rates.

The stem cell chosen for this experiment is a “mesoangioblast” (Mab). Mabs are stem cells found in the walls of large blood vessels that have the ability to differentiate into blood vessel cells and, under some conditions, muscle.  Why use Mabs for muscle regeneration rather than stem cells that give rise to muscle (myoblasts)? Several experiments have shown that Mabs overcome some of the problems associated with injecting myoblasts into muscle. When injected into muscle, myoblasts tend to not migrate very well, then many of them die and few of them get incorporated into muscle. Mabs, on the other hand, survive better and get incorporated into muscle at a much higher rate. Mabs have the ability to cross the endothelium and to migrate extensively in the space between blood vessels and muscles, where they are recruited by regenerating muscle to reconstitute new functional muscle fibers (See M. Sampaolesi, et al., Science 2003, 301(5632):487–492; M. Guttinger Exp Cell Res 2006, 312:3872–3879; & M. Sampaolesi, et al., Nature 2006, 444(7119):574–579).  These experiments show that mesoangioblasts can also form skeletal muscle.  A phase I/II clinical trial based on intraarterial delivery of donor-derived mesoangioblasts is currently ongoing in children affected by Duchene Muscular Dystrophy at the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan (EudraCT no. 2011-



When this team implanted PF scaffolds with embedded Mabs directly into the inflamed and sclerotic regions typical of the advanced states of muscular dystrophy, they observed high levels of Mab survival and engraftment. Five weeks after treatments, the mice treated with Mabs embedded into PF scaffolds showed much higher rates of integration into the muscle fibers than Mabs that were injected directly into the muscle. Also, Mabs that had been delivered into the muscle on PF scaffolds resulted in muscle that showed much better organization that muscle treated with direct injections of Mabs.

This study demonstrated that a novel tissue engineering approach can produce enriched donor cell engraftment into skeletal muscle after an acute injury or in those more difficult to treat cases of advanced muscular dystrophy.

Injected Wnt Protein Helps With Muscular Dystrophy

Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a genetic disease that affects one of every 3,500 newborn males. Because the DMD gene is located on the X chromosome, loss-of-function mutations that cause Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) tend to occur in males.

Muscular dystrophy or MS affects skeletal muscles and causes muscle weakness and muscle loss, and unfortunately, the disease often progresses to a state were the muscles are so weak and damaged that even the diaphragm, which is a voluntary muscle, becomes nonfunctional, and the patients dies from an inability to breath.

Recently, Michael Rudnicki, a MS researcher from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute in Canada, has led a research team that discovered that injections of a protein called “WNT7a” into muscles can increase the size and strength of muscles in MS mice.

Rudnicki is the director of the Regenerative Medicine Program at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI), Canada. The results of this work were published on the Nov. 26, 2012, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

For these experiments, Rudnicki collaborated with a San Diego-based biotechnology firm known as Fate Therapeutics. Fate Therapeutics specializes in developing pharmaceuticals that are based on stem cell biology, and Rudnicki is one of the founders of this company. Rudnicki hopes to begin a clinical trial of WNT7a for DMD in the near future.

In 2009, Rudnicki and co-workers showed that WNT7a protein is able to stimulate muscle repair by increasing the available supply of a population of muscle stem cells known as “muscle satellite cells.” Muscle satellite cells are located near muscle fibers but they are dormant until they are needed for muscle repair or muscle fiber regeneration. When the muscle is stressed or damaged, the satellite cells increase in number (proliferate) and mature (differentiate).

Muscle Satellite Cells

These newly published findings build on these earlier results. Once injected into the muscles of mice afflicted with DMD, the WNT7a-injected muscles showed significant increases in fiber strength and size. However, Rudnicki and others also found that WNT7a stimulated a two-fold increase in the number of satellite cells in the injected mouse muscles.

Rudnicki was worried that WNT7a was pushing satellite cells to differentiate prematurely, which was disconcerting because such premature differentiation would deplete the muscle satellite population. However, no evidence of premature differentiation was observed. Additionally, WNT7a-injected mouse muscles showed far less contraction-related injury, suggesting that WNT7a has a kind of protective effect on the muscle.

Even though these experiments were done in a mouse model of DMD, would WNT7a also work in a similar fashion in human muscles? To answer this questions, Rudnicki and his colleagues analyzed human muscle tissue from healthy male donors that had been treated with WNT7a. The results showed that the effects of this protein in skeletal muscle are the same in humans as in mice.

To summarize from their own paper: “Our experiments provide compelling evidence that WNT7a treatment counteracts the significant hallmarks of DMD, including muscle weakness, making WNT7a a promising candidate for development as an ameliorative treatment for DMD.”

The remarkable conclusion is that increasing muscle strength by injecting WNT7a into specific, vital muscle groups, such as those involved in breathing, should be considered as a therapeutic approach for this debilitating disease.