BMP-2 Release By Synthetic Coacervates Improves Bone Making Ability of Muscle Stem Cells


Johnny Huard and his co-workers from the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh have isolated a slowly-adherent stem cell population from skeletal muscle called muscle-derived stem cells or MDSCs (see Deasy et al Blood Cells Mol Dis 2001 27: 924-933). These stem cells can form bone and cartilage tissue in culture when induced properly, but more importantly when MDSCs are engineered to express the growth factor Bone Morphogen Protein-2 (BMP-2), they make better bone and do a better job of healing bone lesions than other engineered muscle-derived cells (Gates et al., J Am Acad Orthop Surg 2008 16: 68-76).

In most experiments, MDSCs are infected with genetically engineered viruses to deliver the BMP-2 genes, but the use of viruses is not preferred if such a technique is to come to the clinic. Viruses elicit and immune response and can also introduce mutations into stem cells. Therefore a new way to introduce BMP-2 into stem cells is preferable.

To that end, Huard and his colleagues devised an ingenious technique to feed BMP-2 to implanted MDSCs without using viruses. They utilized a particle composed of heparin (a component of blood vessels) and a synthetic molecule called poly(ethylene arginylaspartate diglyceride), which is mercifully abbreviated PEAD. The PEAD-heparin delivery system formed a so-called “coacervate,” which is a tiny spherical droplet that is held together by internal forces and composed of organic molecules. These PEAD-heparin coacervates could be loaded with BMP-2 protein and they released slowly and steadily to provide the proper stimulus to the MDSCs to form bone.

When tested in culture dishes, the BMP-2-loaded coacervates more than tripled the amount of bone made by the MDSCs, but when they were implanted in living rodents the presence of the BMP-2-loaded coacervates quadrupled the amount of bone made by the MDSCs.

This technique provides a way to continuously deliver BMP-2 to MDSCs without using viral vectors to infect them. These carriers do inhibit the growth or function of the MDSCs and activate their production of bone.

This paper used a “heterotropic bone formation assay” which is to say that cells were injected into the middle of muscle and they formed ectopic bone. The real test is to see if these cells can repair actual bone lesions with this system.

Human Blood Vessel-Derived Stem Cells Repair the Heart After a Heart Attack


Recently, I blogged on blood vessel-making stem cells located in the walls of blood vessels. New work on these cells from the University of Pittsburgh has shown that these CD146+ cells can also abate heart damage after a heart attack.

The ability of endothelial progenitor cells or EPCs to repair skeletal muscle is well established, but the ability of these cells to repair a damaged heart is unknown. Johnny Huard from the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and his group investigated the therapeutic capabilities of human blood vessel-derived EPCs that had been isolated from skeletal muscle to treat heart disease in mice.

When mice that had been given infusions of EPCs after a heart attack were compared with mice that had received a placebo, the EPC transplanted mice definitely fared much better. Echocardiographic studies of the hearts showed that EPC transplantation reduced enlargement of the left ventricle (the main pumping chamber of the heart), and also significantly improved the ability of the heart to contract.

In addition to comparing the ability of EPCs to improve the function of the heart after a heart attack with placebos, they were also compared to stem cells known to make skeletal muscle. These stem cells are called “CD56+ myogenic progenitor cells,” which is a mouthful. CD56+ myogenic progenitor cells or CD56+ MPCs can form skeletal muscle; and infusions of them can improve the structure of the heart after a heart attack and prevent it from deteriorating. However, transplanted EPCs were superior to CD56+ MPCs in their ability to heal the heart after a heart attack.

The transplanted EPCs were able to substantially reduced scarring in the heart, and significantly reduced inflammation in the heart. In fact, then the culture medium in which EPCs were grown was injected into mouse hearts after a heart attack, this medium also suppressed inflammation in the heart.

When Huard and his co-workers examined the genes made in the EPCs, they found that these stem cells cranked out proteins known to decrease inflammation (IL-6, LIF, COX-2 and HMOX-1 for those who are interested), especially when the cells were grown under low oxygen conditions. This is significant because in the heart after a heart attack, blood vessels have died off and the supply of blood to the heart is compromised. The fact that these cells are able to do this under these harsh conditions shows that they make exactly the most desirable molecules under these conditions.

The biggest boon for these cells came from examinations of blood vessel formation in the heart. Blood vessel production in the EPC-transplanted hearts was significantly increased. The EPCs formed a host of new blood vessels and extending “microvascular structures” or smaller supporting blood vessels and larger capillary networks too.

Once again, when grown under oxygen poor conditions, the EPCs jacked up their expression of pro-blood vessel-making molecules (VEGF-A, PDGF-β, TGF-β1 and their receptors). When EPCs were labeled with a green-glowing protein, fluorescence tracking showed that they actually fused with heart cells, although it must be emphasized that this was a minor event.

These pre-clinical studies show remarkable improvements in the heart after a heart attack, and they apparently induce these improvements through several different mechanisms. They make new structures and they secrete useful molecules. These significantly successful results should provide the basis for clinical trials with these cells.

Making Older Mice Younger with Stem Cell Injections


University of Pittsburgh scientists have used stem cells derived from younger young mice to revitalize older mice. They used mice that were bred to age quickly, but after these stem cell injections, they seemed to have sipped from the fountain of youth. These stem cells were derived from muscles of young, healthy animals, and instead of becoming infirm and dying early as untreated mice did, the injected animals improved their health and lived two to three times longer than expected. These findings were published in the Jan. 3 edition of Nature Communications.

Previous research has revealed stem cell dysfunction, such as poor replication and differentiation, in a variety of tissues in old age. However it is not clear whether that loss of function contributes to the aging process or is a result of it. Senior investigators in this work were Johnny Huard, Ph.D., professor in the Departments of Orthopaedic Surgery and of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Pitt School of Medicine, and director of the Stem Cell Research Center at Pitt and Children’s Hospital of PIttsburgh of UPMC, and Laura Niedernhofer, M.D., Ph.D. associate professor in Pitt’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI).

Niedernhofer explained: “Our experiments showed that mice that have progeria, a disorder of premature aging, were healthier and lived longer after an injection of stem cells from young, healthy animals. That tells us that stem cell dysfunction is a cause of the changes we see with aging.”

The research team examined a stem/progenitor cell population derived from the muscle of mice engineered to suffer from a genetic disease called progeria. Progeria is a genetic disease that causes premature aging. Human patients with progeria age extremely quickly and die at a very young age from old age. Muscle-derived stem cells from progeria mice were fewer in number, did not replicate as often, didn’t differentiate as readily into specialized cells and were impaired in their ability to regenerate damaged muscle in comparison to those found in normal rodents. The same defects were discovered in the stem/progenitor cells isolated from very old mice.

Dr. Huard said: “We wanted to see if we could rescue these rapidly aging animals, so we injected stem/progenitor cells from young, healthy mice into the abdomens of 17-day-old progeria mice. Typically the progeria mice die at around 21 to 28 days of age, but the treated animals lived far longer – some even lived beyond 66 days. They also were in better general health.”

As the progeria mice age, they lose muscle mass in their hind limbs, hunch over, tremble, and move slowly and awkwardly. Affected mice received an injection of stem cells just before showing the first signs of aging were more like normal mice, and they grew almost as large. Closer examination showed new blood vessel growth in the brain and muscle, even though the stem/progenitor cells weren’t detected in those tissues. However, the injected cells didn’t migrate to any particular tissue after injection into the abdomen.

Niedernhofer noted: “This leads us to think that healthy cells secrete factors to create an environment that help correct the dysfunction present in the native stem cell population and aged tissue. In a culture dish experiment, we put young stem cells close to, but not touching, progeria stem cells, and the unhealthy cells functionally improved.”

Animals that age normally were not treated with stem/progenitor cells, but these provocative findings urge further research. They hint that it might be possible one day to forestall the biological declines associated with aging by delivering a shot of youthful vigor, particularly if specific rejuvenating proteins or molecules produced by the stem cells could be identified and isolated.