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.
Embryonic stem cells have the capacity to differentiate into every cell in the adult body. One cell type into which embryonic stem cells (ESCs) can be differentiated rather efficiently is cardiomyocytes, which is a fancy term for heart muscle cells. The protocol for making heart muscle cells from ESCs is well worked out, and the conversion is rather efficient and the purification schemes that have been developed are also rather effective (for example, see Cao N, et al., Highly efficient induction and long-term maintenance of multipotent cardiovascular progenitors from human pluripotent stem cells under defined conditions. Cell Res. 2013 Sep;23(9):1119-32. doi: 10.1038/cr.2013.102 and Mummery CL et al., Differentiation of human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells to cardiomyocytes: a methods overview. Circ Res. 2012 Jul 20;111(3):344-58).
Using these cells in a clinical setting has two large challenges. The first is that embryonic stem cell derivatives are rejected by the immune system of the recipient, thus setting up the patient for a graft versus host response to the implanted tissue, thus making the patient even sicker than when they started. The second problem is that heart muscle cells made from ESCs are immature and cause the heart to beat abnormally fast thus causing “tachyarrythmias” and died within the first two weeks after the transplant (see Liao SY, et al., Heart Rhythm 2010 7:1852-1859).
Both of these problems are large problems, but the laboratory of Ronald Li at the University of Hong Kong at used a genetic engineering trick to make heart muscle cells from mouse embryonic stem cells to seemingly fix this problem.
Li and his colleagues engineered mouse ESCs with a gene for a potassium rectifier channel that could be induced with drugs. Then they differentiated these genetically ESCs into heart muscle cells. This potassium rectifier channel (Kir2.1) is not present in immature heart muscle cells and putting it into these cells might cause them to beat at a slower rate.
These engineered ESC-derived heart muscle cells were tested for their electrophysiological properties first. Without the drug that induces KIR2.1, the heart muscle cells showed very abnormal electrical properties. However, once the drug was added, their electrical properties looked much more normal.
Then they induced heart attacks in laboratory animals and implanted their engineered ESC-derived heart muscle cells 1 hour after the heart attacks were induced. Animals not given the drug to induce the expression of Kir2.1 faired very poorly and had episodes of tachyarrythmia (really fast heart beat) and over half of them died by 5 weeks after the implantation. Essentially the implanted animals did worse than those animals that had had a heart attack that were not treated. However, those animals that were given the drug that induces the expression of Kir2.1 in heart muscle cells did much better. The survival rate of these animals was higher than the untreated animals after about 7 weeks after the procedure. Survival rates increased by only a little, but the increase was significant. Also, the animals that died did not die of tachyarrythmias. In fact the rate of tachyarrythmias in the animals given the inducing drug (which was doxycycline by the way) had significantly lower levels of tachyarrythmia than the other two groups.
Other heart functions were also significantly affected. The ejection fraction in the animals that ha received the Kir2.1-expression heart muscle cells was 10-20% higher than the control animals. Also the density of blood vessels was substantially higher in both sets of animals treated with ESC-derived heart muscle cells. The echocardiogram of the hearts implanted with the Kir2.1-expressing heart muscle cells was altogether more normal than that of the others.
This paper is a significant contribution to the use of ESC-derived cells to treat heart patients. The induction of heart arrhythmias by ESC-derived heart muscle cells is a documented risk of their use. Li and his colleagues have effectively eliminated that risk in this paper by forcing the expression of a potassium rectifier channel in the ESC-derived heart muscle cells. Also, because these cells were completely differentiated and did not have any interloping pluripotent cells in their culture, tumor formation was not observed.
There are a few caveats I would like to point out. First of all, the increase in survival rate above the control is not that impressive. The improvement in heart function parameters is certainly encouraging, but because the survival rates are not that higher than the control mice that received no treatment, it appears that these benefits were only conferred to those mice who survived in the first place.
Secondly, even though the heart attacks were induced in the ventricles of the heart, Li and his colleagues injected a mixture of heart muscle cells that included atrial, ventricular, nodal and heart fibroblasts. This provides an opportunity for beat mismatches and a “substrate for ventricular tachycardia” as Li puts it. In the future, the transplantation of just ventricular heart muscle cells would be cleaner experiment. Since these mice were not observed long enough to observe potential arrythmias that might have arisen from the presence of a mixed population in the ventricle.
Finally, in adapting this to humans might be difficult, since the hearts of mice beat so much faster than those of humans. It is possible that even if human cardiomyocytes were engineered with Kir2.1-type channels, that arrythmias might still be a potential problem.
Despite all that, Li’s publication is a large step forward.
After a heart attack, inflammation in the heart kills off heart muscle cells and fibroblasts in the heart make a protein called collagen, which forms a heart scar. The heart scar does not contract and does not conduct electrochemical signals. The scar will contract over time, but its presence can lead to abnormal heart rhythms, also known as arrhythmias. Arrythmias can be fatal, since they can cause a heart attack. To prevent a heart attack, physicians will treat heart attack patients with a group of drugs called beta-blockers that slow down the heart rate and protect the heart from the deleterious effects of norepinephrine (secreted by the sympathetic nerve inputs to the heart). An alternative treatment is digoxin or digitalis, which is a chemical found in foxglove. Digitalis inhibits ion pumps in heart muscle cells and slows the heart and the force of its contractions. Digitalis, however, interacts with a whole shoe box fill of drugs, has a very long half-life, and is hard to dose. Therefore it is not the first choice.
Given all this, helping the heart to make a smaller heart scar is a better strategy for treating a heart after a heart attack. To accomplish this, you need to inhibit the heart fibroblasts that make the heart scar in the first place. Secondly, you must move something into the place of the dead cells. Otherwise, the heart could burst or scar tissue will move into the area anyway.
To that end, Yigang Wang and his colleagues at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in Ohio have published an ingenious paper in which they tried two different strategies to reduce the size of the heart scar, which concomitantly increased the colonization of the heart by induced pluripotent stem cells engineered to express a sodium-calcium exchange pump.
Previously, Wang and his colleagues used a patch to heal the heart after a heart attack. The patch consisted of endothelial cells, which make blood vessels, induced pluripotent stem cells engineered to make a sodium-calcium exchange pump called NCX1, and embryonic fibroblasts. This so-called tri-cell patch makes new blood vessels, establishes new heart muscle, and the foundational matrix molecules to form a platform for beating heart muscle.
In order to get these cells to spread throughout the injured heart, Wang and others used a reagent that specifically inhibits heart fibroblasts. They used a small non-coding RNA molecule. A group of microRNAs called miR-29 family are downregulated after a heart attack. As it turns out, these microRNAs inhibit a group of genes that involved in collagen deposition. Therefore, by overexpressing miR-29 microRNAs, they could prevent collagen deposition and reduce scar formation.
The experimental design in this paper is rather complex. Therefore, I will go through it slowly. First, they tried to overexpress miR-29 microRNAs in cultured heart fibroblasts and sure enough, they inhibited collagen synthesis. Cells overexpressing miR-29 made less than a third of the collagen of their normal counterparts. When they placed these fibroblasts into the heart and induced heart attacks, again, they made significantly less collagen when they were expressing miR-29.
Then they used their miR-29 RNAs by injecting them directly into the heart before inducing a heart attack, and then after the heart attack, they applied the tri-patch. Their results were significant. The scar size was smaller (almost one-third the size of the controls), and the density of blood vessels was much higher in the tri-patched hearts treated with miR-29. The induced pluripotent stem cells differentiated into heart muscle cells and spread throughout the heart. Heart function measures also consistently went up too. The echiocardiograph before more normal, the ejection fraction went up, the % shortening of the heart muscle fibers was increased, and the relaxation phase of the heart (diastole) also was not so puffy (see graphs and figures below).
There is a cautionary note to this study. Inhibiting collagen formation after a heart attack could create soft fragile regions of the heart that are subject to rupture should the vascular systolic pressure increase. While that threat was not observed in this study, human hearts, which are much larger, would be much more susceptible to such a mishap. Therefore, while this study is interesting and suggest a strategy in humans, it requires more testing and refinement before anyone can even think about applying it to humans.
The umbilical cord contains a major umbilical vein and an umbilical artery, but these blood vessels are embedded in a gel-like matrix called “Wharton’s jelly.” Wharton’s jelly is home to a population of mesenchymal stem cells that have peculiar properties.
You might first say, “what on earth is a mesenchymal stem cell?” Fair enough. Mesenchymal stem cells were first discovered in bone marrow. In bone marrow, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) do not make blood cells; that;’s the job of the hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). MSCs in bone marrow serve an important support role for HSCs in bone marrow. Traditionally, MSCs have the capacity to differentiate into fat cells, bone cells, and cartilage cells. However, further has shown that MSCs can also form a variety of other cell types as well if manipulated in the laboratory. MSCs also express are characteristic cadre of cell surface proteins (CD10, CD13, CD29, CD44, CD90, and CD105 for those who are interested).
MSCs, however, are found in more places that just bone marrow. As it turns out, MSCs have been found in fat, muscle, liver, tendons, synovial membrane (the membranes that surround joints, skin, and so on. Some scientists think that every organ in the body may harbor a MSC population. Furthermore, these MSC populations differ in the genes they express, their capability to differentiate into different cell types, and their cell surface proteins (see this article on this website for a rather exhaustive foray into this topic).
Now that you are more savvy about MSCs, Wharton’s jelly contains a MSC population, but this population seems to have a younger profile than MSCs from other parts of the body. They are more plastic and more invisible to the immune system than other types of MSCs. For that reason, they might be good candidates for treating a sick heart after a heart attack. A recent paper by Wei Zhang and others from the TEDA International Cardiovascular Hospital and the Tianjin Medical Cardiovascular Clinical College examined the ability of MSCs from the Wharton’s jelly of human umbilical cords to heal the hearts of minipigs after a heart attack. Oh, before I forget – this paper was published in the journal Coronary Artery Disease.
Twenty-three minipigs were subjected to open-heart surgery and given heart attacks. Then the pigs were divided into three groups, a control group, a group that received injections of saline into their hearts, and a third group that received injections of 40 million human Wharton’s jelly derived MSCs into the region of the infarct. The animals were sewn up and given antibiotics to prevent infection.
Six weeks after surgery, each animal was examined by means of Technetium-sestamibi myocardial perfusion imaging, and electrocardiography. For those who do not know what Technetium-sestamibi myocardial perfusion imaging is for, it works like this. Cardiolite is the trade name of a large, fat-soluble molecule that flows through the heart in a fashion proportion to the blood flow through the heart muscle. Single photon emission computed tomography or SPECT is used to detect the Cardiolite. Areas of the heart without blood flow are the regions damaged during the heart attack. Therefore, this technique is extremely useful to determine the area of damage in the heart.
After the animals were examined, they were put down and their hearts were extracted, sectioned, and stained for areas or cell death, and the areas where the injected stem cells resided. All injected stem cells were labeled before injection so that they were easily detectable.
The results were clear. The heart injected with MSCs from umbilical cord did not show any decrease in ejection fraction, whereas the other two groups showed an average reduction in injection fraction of around 10%. In fact the stem cell-injected hearts showed an average 1 % increase in ejection fraction. The blood flow in the hearts was even more different. blood flow is measured as a ratio of dead heart tissue to total heart tissue. The control of saline-injected hearts had an average ratio of about 4%, whereas the stem cell-injected hearts had a slightly negative percentage. This is a significant difference. Echocardiography confirmed that the wall thickness of the stem cell-injected hearts was significantly thicker than the walls of the control or the saline-injected hearts; some 14 times thicker!!
When the dissected hearts were examined, the MSC-injected hearts had lots of stem cells still in them. The cells not only survived, but, according to Zhang and his colleagues, differentiated into heart muscle cells. Their rationale for this conclusion is three-fold – the cells had the same shape and form or native heart muscle cells, they expressed heart specific Troponin T and vWF proteins, and electrically coupled with other heart muscle cells by expressing connexin. Connexin is a protein that traverses the membranes of two closely apposed cells and forms small pores between two cells that allows the exchange of SMALL molecules such as ions, ATP, and things like that. These connexin constructed pores are called “gap junctions” and they are the reason heart muscle cells work as a single unit, since any electrochemical change in one cell immediately spreads to all other nearby, connected cells.
As much as I would like to believe Zhang and his colleagues, I remain skeptical that these cells differentiated into heart muscle cells. I say this because MSCs can be differentiated in culture to form cells that look and act like heart muscle cells. These cells will even express some heart-specific genes. However, they lack the calcium handling machinery of true heart muscle cells and do not function as true heart muscle. To convince that these Wharton jelly MSCs truly are heart muscle cells, they will need to show that they contain heart specific calcium handling proteins (see Shake JG, Gruber PJ, Baumgartner WA et al. Ann Thorac Surg 2002;73:1919–1925; Davani S, Marandin A, Mersin N et al. Circulation 2003;108(suppl 1):II253–258; Hou M, Yang KM, Zhang H et al. Int J Cardiol 2007;115:220 –228). If they can show this, then I will believe them.
However, there are two findings of this paper that are not in doubt. The number of blood vessels in the hearts of the MSC-treated animals far exceeded the number found in the control or the saline-treated hearts (3-4 times the number of blood vessels). Therefore, the Wharton’s jelly MSCs induced lots and lots of blood vessels. Many of these blood vessels contained labeled cells, which shows that the MSCs differentiated into endothelial and smooth muscle cells, Also, the Wharton’s jelly MSCs clearly induced resident cardiac stem cell (CSC) populations in the hearts of the minipigs, since several cells that expressed CSC surface molecules were found in the heart muscle tissue. Previous work by Hatzistergos and others showed that MSCs induce the endogenous CSC population and this is one of the ways that MSCs help heal ailing hearts (Circulation Research 2010 107:913-22).
Zhang’s paper is interesting and it shows that Wharton’s jelly MSCs are safe and efficacious for treating the heart after a heart attack. Also, none of the minipigs in this experiment were treated with drugs to suppress the immune system. No immune response against the cells was reported. Therefore, the invisibility of these cells to the immune system seems to last, at least in this experiment.