After a heart attack, the heart is a very inhospitable place for implanted stem cells. These cells have to deal with low oxygen levels, marauding white blood cells, toxins released from dead or nearly-dead cells, and other nasty things.
Getting cells to survive in this place is essential if the cells are going to provide any healing to he heart. Fortunately, a Chinese group has discovered that growing cells in inhospitable conditions before implantation greatly improves their survival. Now, this same group from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia has shown that a small molecule can do the same thing.
This work, published in Current Stem Cell Research and Therapy, centers upon a pathway in cells controlled by a protein called the hypoxia-inducible factor or HIF. This protein regulates those genes that allow cells to withstand low-oxygen and other stressful conditions. HIF is composed of two parts: an oxygen-sensitive inducible HIF-1α subunit and a constitutive HIF-1β subunit. During nonstressful conditions, the alpha subunit is constantly being degraded after it is made because it is modified by a enzymes called prolyl hydroxylase (PHD) enzymes. In the presence of low oxygen conditions, PHD enzymes are inhibited and HIF-1α increases in concentration. The HIFα/β heterodimer forms and is stabilized, and translocates to the nucleus where it activates target genes.
It turns out that small molecules can inhibit PHD enzymes and induce the low-oxygen status in cells without subjecting them to rigorous culture conditions. For example, dimethyloxalylglycine (DMOG) can inhibit PHD enzymes and produce in cells the types of responses normally observed under low-oxygen conditions.
In this paper, Ling Wei and colleagues cultured mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow with or without 1 mM DMOG for 24 hours in complete culture medium before transplantation. These cells were then transplanted into the hearts of rats 30 minutes after those rats had suffered an experimentally-induced heart attack. They then measured the rates of cell death 24 hours after engraftment, and heart function, new blood vessel formation and infarct size 4 weeks later.