The laboratory of Charles Murry at the University of Washington has used embryonic stem cells to make heart muscle cells that were then used to regenerate damaged hearts in non-human primates. This experiment demonstrates the possibility of using heart muscle cells derived from pluripotent stem cells, but it also underscores the many challenges that still must be overcome.
When the heart undergoes a heart attack or other types of damage, heart muscle cells begin to die off and these cells are not easy to replace. Heart muscle cells, also known as cardiomyocytes, do not readily replace themselves. Even though the heart has a resident stem cell population, (cardiac progenitor cells or CPCs) these heart-specific stem cells have a limited capacity to regenerate the heart. After a heart attack, as many as one billion cardiomyocytes or more die. The loss of so many beating heart muscle cells compromises heart function and can also lead to chronic heart failure and even death.
Physicians, cardiologists, and researchers have been on the lookout for new and improved procedures and technologies to replenish damaged heart tissue. Several different types of stem cells have shown promise in animal models and in human clinical trials. Stem cells from bone marrow have the ability to secrete a cocktail of molecules that stimulate heart regeneration. Whole bone marrow or isolated stem cell populations have shown variable, but statistically significant in patients who have had a recent heart attack. Unfortunately, stem cells from bone marrow do not have the ability to differentiate into heart muscle cells, and to maximize regeneration of the heart, damaged heart muscle must be replaced.
Human embryonic stem cells have proven promising in small animal models, but the long-term effects of embryonic stem cell-mediated improvements in some cases have proven to be transient. An additional problem with embryonic stem cell-derived heart muscle cells is their tendency to cause abnormal heart rates, otherwise known as arrhythmias.
Scientists in Murry’s laboratory tried to scale-up the production of cardiomyocytes from human embryonic stem cells in order to test the regenerative ability of these cells in a large animal model – non-human primates. These experiments were published online on April 30, 2014, in the journal Nature.
Murry’s team derived cardiomyocytes from genetically-engineered human embryonic stem cells that made a fluorescent calcium indicator that glowed in the presence of high calcium ion concentrations. With this fluorescent calcium indicator, Murray and his coworkers could track the calcium waves that mark the electrical activity of a beating heart. The animal subjects for this experiment were pigtail macaques (Macaca nemestrina) that had suffered heart damage and had been treated with drugs to suppress their immune systems. Five days later, the embryonic stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes were delivered in a surgical procedure to the damaged regions and surrounding border zones of the heart.
Over a 3-month period, the implanted cells infiltrated damaged heart muscle, matured, and organized themselves into muscle fibers in all the monkeys who received the treatment. An average of 40% of the damaged tissue was replaced by these grafts. Three-dimensional imaging showed that arteries and veins integrated into the grafts. Because sick hearts often contain clogged blood vessels, oxygen delivery to the damaged heart tissue was minimal. However, because these grafts contained integrated blood vessels, they would potentially be long-lasting.
Calcium activity studies showed that the heart muscle tissue within the grafts were electrically active and coupled to activity of the host heart. The grafts beat along with host muscle at rates of up to 240 beats per minute, the highest rate tested.
All the macaques that received the grafts showed transient arrhythmias or irregular heart rates. However, these subsided by 4 weeks post-transplantation. The animals remained conscious and in no apparent distress during periods of arrhythmia. However, this problem will need to be addressed before this approach can be tested in humans.
“Before this study, it was not known if it is possible to produce sufficient numbers of these cells and successfully use them to remuscularize damaged hearts in a large animal whose heart size and physiology is similar to that of the human heart,” Murry says.
This article shows that despite the obstacles that remain, transplantation of human cardiomyocytes derived from pluripotent stem cells may be feasible for heart patients.
There are a few caveats I would like to mention. First of all, these animals underwent immunosuppression. If this procedure were to be used in a human patient, the human patient would need life-long immunosuppression, which has a wide range of side effects and tends to stop working over time. Therefore, induced pluripotent stem cells are a better choice. Secondly, the paper admits that the implanted cells underwent “progressive but incomplete maturation over a 3-month period.” If the implanted cells are not maturing completely, then the risk of arrhythmias still exists, even though they may have subsided in these animals after 4 weeks. This leads me to my third point. These animals were watched for 3 months. How do we know that these results were not transient? Longer-term experiments are needed to establish that this treatment actually is long-term and not transient. It is, however, gratifying to see an experiment that was extended to 12 weeks rather than the usual 4 weeks that is usually seen in mice.
Finally, tucked away in the extended data is the statement: “The cell-treated animals showed variable responses, with some having increased function and some having decreased function. Because of small group size, no statistical effects of hESC-CM therapy can be discerned.” In other words, the treatments worked swimmingly in some animals and not at all in others. This was a small animal trial and better numbers will be needed if this technology is to come to the clinic.