Temple University stem cell researcher Raj Kishore, who serves as the Director of the Stem Cell Therapy Program at the Center for Translational Medicine at Temple University School of Medicine (TUSM), and his colleagues have used exosomes from stem cells to induce tissue repair in the damaged heart. The results of this fascinating research made the cover of the June 19, 2015 edition of the leading cardiovascular research journal, Circulation Research.
“If your goal is to protect the heart, this is a pretty important finding,” Dr. Kishore said. “You can robustly the heart’s ability to repair itself without using the stem cells themselves. Our work shows a unique way to regenerate the heart using secreted vesicles from embryonic stem cells.” Kishore’s group is in the early stages of characterizing the molecules in these exosomes that are responsible for inducing and potentiating tissue repair.
The heart beats throughout the lifetime of an individual. Despite its apparent constancy, the heart possess little to no ability to repair itself. When heart muscle is damaged in a heart attack, the heart is unable to replace the dead tissue and grow new contracting heart muscle. Instead, after a heart attack, it compensates for lost pumping ability by enlarging, a phenomenon known as ”remodeling.” .Remodeling, however, come with a high price, since the heart grows beyond the ability of the sparse cardiac circulatory system to properly convey blood to the enlarged heart muscle. Consequently, heart contraction weakens, leading to a condition known as congestive heart failure, which contributes to, or causes one in nine deaths in the United States. Heart disease is our nation’s leading killer.
Given the fact that heart disease is the result of the death of heart muscle cells, this condition seems to tailor-made for stem cell therapy. A variety of animal experiments with stem cells from bone marrow, muscle, fat, or embryos have shown that stem cells can regenerate heart muscle. However, the regeneration of the heart is much more complicated than was originally thought. For example, injecting damaged hearts with stem cells turned out to be a rather ineffective strategy because the heart, after a heart attack, is a very hostile place for newly infused cells. Dr. Kishore noted, “People know if they inject hundreds of stem cells into an organ, you’re going to be very lucky to find two of them the next day. They die. It’s as though you’re putting them into the fire and the fire burns them.”
Dr. Kishore has used a very different approach for regenerative medicine. Over 10 years ago, cancer researchers discovered tiny sacks excreted by cells that they called “exosomes.” These exosomes were thought to be involved with waste disposal, but later work showed that they were more mini-messengers, carry telegrams between cells. Exosomes proved to be one way a primary tumor communicated with distant metastases. Researchers later discovered that nearly all cell types excrete exosomes. Dr. Kishore and his team began to study the exosomes of stem cells to determine if these small vesicles could solve the heart-repair problem.
In 2011, Kishore’s team published the first paper to ever examine stem cell exosomes and heart repair. This paper established Kishore and his research team as a pioneer in exosome research and in the use of exosomes in the treatment of heart disease. A year after that paper, there were a total of 52 papers published on exosomes, but today there are 7,519 papers reporting on exosome research. Among those studies, only 13 or 14 have examined exosomes in heart disease. This new paper by Dr. Kishore’s team marks its third contribution to the science of exosomes and heart repair.
In the current study, Kishore and others used a mouse model of heart attack. Also involved in the research are Dr. Kishore’s colleagues from Temple’s Center for Translational Medicine, the Cardiovascular Research Center, and the Department of Pharmacology, as well as researchers from the Feinberg Cardiovascular Research Institute at Northwestern University in Chicago.
In this study, after suffering a heart attack, the mice received exosomes from either embryonic stem cells or exosomes from fibroblasts. Mice that received the fibroblast-derived exosomes served as the control group. The results were unmistakable. Mice that received exosomes from embryonic stem cells showed significantly improved heart function after a heart attack compared to the control group. More heart muscle cells in these mice survived after the heart attack, and their hearts also exhibited less scar tissue. Fewer heart cells committed suicide — a process known as programmed cell death, or apoptosis. Also, hearts from mice treated with embryonic stem cell-derived exosomes showed greater capillary development around the areas of injury. The increased density of blood vessels improved circulation and oxygen supply to the heart muscle. Further, there was a marked increase in endogenous cardiac progenitor cells, which is the hearts own internal stem cell population. These cells survived and created new heart cells. The heartbeat was more powerful in the experimental group compared to the control group, and the kind of unhealthy enlargement that compensates for tissue damage was minimized.
Vishore’s group also tested the effect of one of the most abundant gene-regulating molecules (microRNAs) found in the stem cell exosome; a microRNA called miR-294. When purified miR-294 alone was introduced to cardiac stem cells in the laboratory, it mimicked many of the effects seen when the entire exosome was delivered. “To a large extent, this micro-RNA alone can recapitulate the activity of the exosome,” Dr. Kishore said. “But we can never say it is responsible for all of the response because embryonic stem cell exosomes have many other microRNAs.”
Future research will examine both exosome therapy and the use of specific microRNAs for heart repair in large-animal models of heart attack with a view to eventually testing these components in human patients in clinical trials.
“Our work shows that the best way to regenerate the heart is to augment the self-repair capabilities and increase the heart’s own capacity to heal,” Dr. Kishore said. “This way, we’re avoiding risks associated with teratoma formation and other potential complications of using full stem cells. It’s an exciting development in the field of heart disease.”