Heart Regeneration and the Heart’s Own Stem Cell Population


For years scientists were sure that the heart virtually never regenerated.

Today this view has changed, and researchers at the Max Plank Institute for Heart and Lung Research have identified a stem cell population that is responsible for heart regeneration. Human hearts, as it turns out, do constantly regenerate, but at a very slow rate.

This finding brings the possibility that it might be possible to stimulate and augment this self-healing process, especially in patients with diseases or disorders of the heart, with new treatments.

Some vertebrates have the ability to regenerate large portions of their heart. For example zebrafish and several species of amphibians have the ability to self-heal and constantly maintain the heart at maximum capacity. This situation is quite different for mammals that have a low capacity for heart regeneration. Heart muscle cells in mammals stop dividing soon after birth.

However, mammalian hearts do have a resident stem cell population these cells replace heart muscle cells throughout the life of the organism, In humans, between 1-4% of all heart muscle cells are replaced every year.

Experiments with laboratory mice have identified at heart stem cells called Sca-1 cells that replace adult heart muscle cells and are activated when the heart is damaged. Under such conditions, Sca-1 cells produce significantly more heart muscle.

Unfortunately, the proportion of Sca-1 cells in the heart is very low, and finding them has been likened to searching for a diamond at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Shizuka Uchida, the project leader of this research, said, “We also faced the problem that Sca-1 is no longer available in the cells as a marker protein for stem cells after they have been changed into heart muscle cells. To prove this, we had to be inventive.”

This inventiveness came in the form of a visible protein that was made all the time in the Sca-1 cells that would continue being made even if the cells differentiated into heart muscle.

Uchida put it this way: “In this way, we were able to establish that the proportion of the heart muscle cells originating from Sca-1 stem cells increased continuously in healthy mice. Around five percent of the heart muscle cells regenerated themselves within 18 months.”

When the same measurements were taken in mice with heart disease, the number of heart muscle cells made from Sca-1 stem cells increased three-fold.

“The data show that in principle the mammalian heart is able to trigger regeneration and renewal processes. Under normal circumstances, however, these processes are not enough to ultimately repair cardiac damage,” said Thomas Braun, the principal investigator in whose laboratory this work was done.

The aim is to devise and test strategies to improve the activity and number of these stem cells and, ultimately, to strengthen and augment the heart’s self-healing powers.

The Therapeutic Potential of Fat-Based Stem Cells Decreases With Age


Fat is a rich source of stem cells for regenerative medicine.  Treating someone with their own stem cells from their own fat certainly sounds like an attractive option.  However, a new study shows that demonstrates that the therapeutic value of fat-based stem cells declines when those cells come from older patients.

“This could restrict the effectiveness of autologous cell therapy using fat, or adipose-derived mesenchymal stromal cells (ADSCs), and require that we test cell material before use and develop ways to pretreat ADSCs from aged patients to enhance their therapeutic potential,” said Anastasia Efimenko, M.D., Ph.D.  Dr Efimenko and Nina Dzhoyashvili, M.D., were first authors of the study, which was led by Yelena Parfyonova, M.D., D.Sc., at Lomonosov Moscow State University, Moscow.

Heart disease remains the most common cause of death in most countries.  Mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) collected from either bone marrow or fat are considered one of the most promising therapeutic agents for regenerating damaged tissue because of their ability to proliferate in culture and differentiate into different cell types.  Even more importantly they also have the ability to stimulate the growth of new blood vessels (angiogenesis).

In particular, fat is considered an ideal source for MSCs because it is largely dispensable and the stem cells are easily accessible in large amounts with a minimally invasive procedure.  ADSCs have been used in several clinical trials looking at cell therapy for heart conditions, but most of the studies used stem cells from relatively healthy young donors rather than sick, older ones, which are the typical patients who suffer from heart disease.

“We knew that aging and disease itself may negatively affect MSC activities,” Dr. Dzhoyashvili said. “So the aim of our study was to investigate how patient age affects the properties of ADSCs, with special emphasis on their ability to stimulate angiogenesis.”

The Russian team analyzed age-associated changes in ADSCs collected from patients of different age groups, including some patients who suffered from coronary artery disease and some without.  The results showed that ADSCs from the older patients in both groups showed some of the characteristics of aging, including shorter telomeres (the caps on the ends of chromosomes that protect them from deterioration), which confirms that ADSCs do age.

“We showed that ADSCs from older patients both with and without coronary artery disease produced significantly less amounts of angiogenesis-stimulating factors compared with the younger patients in the study and their angiogenic capabilities lessened,” Dr. Efimenko concluded. “The results provide new insight into molecular mechanisms underlying the age-related decline of stem cells’ therapeutic potential.”

“These findings are significant because the successful development of cell therapies depends on a thorough understanding of how age may affect the regenerative potential of autologous cells,” said Anthony Atala, M.D., director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and editor of STEM CELLS Translational Medicine, where this research was published.

A More Efficient Way to Grow Heart Muscle from Stem Cells Could Yield New Regenerative Therapies


An improved method to produce heart muscle from embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells could potentially fulfill the demand for heart disease treatments and models of testing new heart drugs. The challenging part of making heart muscle in the laboratory is the production of cells that are all the same. Otherwise their response to drugs or their transplantation into a damaged heart will be unpredictable and unreliable. Fortunately a new study published in the journal STEM CELLS Translational Medicine may provide a way to make large, homogeneous batches of heart muscle cells.

By mixing some small molecules and growth factors together, an international research team led by investigators at the Cardiovascular Research Center at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai developed a two-step system that induced embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to efficiently differentiate into ventricular heart muscle cells. This protocol was not only highly efficient but also very reproducible. It also seemed to nicely recapitulate the developmental steps of normal heart development.

“These chemically induced, ventricular-like cardiomyocytes (termed ciVCMs) exhibited the expected cardiac electrophysiological and calcium handling properties as well as the appropriate heart rate responses,” said lead investigator Ioannis Karakikes, Ph.D., of the Stanford University School Of Medicine, Cardiovascular Institute. Other members of this research team consisted of scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, and the Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Consortium at the University of Hong Kong.

One of the unusual aspects of this research project was the integrated approach it took. This research group combined computational and experimental systems and by using these techniques, they showed that the use of particular small molecules modulated the Wnt pathway. Signals from the Wnt pathway pass from cell to cell and play a key role in determining whether cells differentiate into an atrial or ventricular muscle cell.

“The further clarification of the molecular mechanism(s) that underlie this kind of subtype specification is essential to improving our understanding of cardiovascular development. We may be able to regulate the commitment, proliferation and differentiation of pluripotent stem cells into heart muscle cells and then harness them for therapeutic purposes,” Dr. Karakikes said.

“Most cases of heart failure are related to a deficiency of heart muscle cells in the lower chambers of the heart,” said Anthony Atala, MD, editor of STEM CELLS Translational Medicine and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “An efficient, cost-effective and reproducible system for generating ventricular cardiomyocytes would be a valuable resource for cell therapies as well as drug screening.”