Three New Clinical Trials Examine Bone Marrow-Based Stem Cells To Treat Heart Failure


In April of 2013, the results of three clinical trials that examined the effects of bone marrow-derived stem cell treatments in patients with acute myocardial infarction (translation – a recent heart attack) or chronic heart failure. These trials were the SWISS-AMI trial, the CELLWAVE trial, and the C-CURE trial.

The SWISS-AMI trial (Circulation. 2013;127:1968-1979), which stands for the Swiss Multicenter Intracoronary Stem Cells Study in Acute Myocardial Infarction trial, was designed to examine the optimal time of stem cell administration at 2 different time points: early or 5 to 7 days versus late or 3 to 4 weeks after a heart attack. This trial is an extension of the large REPAIR-AMI, which showed that patients who tended to receive bone marrow stem cell treatments later rather than earlier had more pronounced therapeutic effects from the stem cell treatments.

SWISS-AMI examined 60 patients who received standard cardiological care after a heart attack, 58 who received bone marrow stem cells 5-7 days after a heart attack, and 49 patients who received bone marrow stem cells 3-4 weeks after their heart attacks. All stem cells were delivered through the coronary arteries by means of the same technology used to deliver a stent.

When the heart function of all three groups were analyzed, no significant differences between the three groups were observed. Those who received stem cell 5-7 days after a heart attack showed a 1.8% increase in their ejection fractions (the percentage of blood that is ejected from the ventricle with each beat) versus an average decrease of 0.4% in those who received standard care, and a 0.8% increase in those who received their stem cells 3-4 weeks after a heart attack. If these results sound underwhelming it is because they are. The standard deviations of each group so massive that these three groups essentially overlap each other. The differences are not significant from a statistical perspective. Thus the results of this study were definitely negative.

The second study, CELLWAVE (JAMA, April 17, 2013—Vol 309, No. 15, 1622-1631), was a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study conducted among heart attack patients between 2005 and 2011 at Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. In this study, the damaged area of heart was pretreated with low-energy ultrasound shock waves, after which patients in each group were treated with either low dose stem cells, high-dose stem cells, or placebo. Patients also received either shock wave treatment or placebo shock wave treatment. Thus this was a very well-controlled study. Stem cells were administered through the coronary arteries, just as in the case of the SWISS-AMI study.

The results were clearly positive in this study. The stem cell + shock wave treatment groups showed definite increases in heart function above the placebo groups, and showed fewer adverse effects. The shock wave treatments seem to prime the heart tissue to receive the stem cells. The shock waves induce the release of cardiac stromal-derived factor-1, which is a potent chemoattractor of stem cells.  This is an intriguing procedure that deserves more study.

The third study, C-CURE, is definitely the most interesting of the three (Bartunek et al. JACC Vol. 61, No. 23, June 11, 2013:2329–38). In this trial, mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) were isolated from bone marrow and primed with a cocktail of chemicals that pushed the stem cells towards a heart muscle fate. Then the cells were transplanted into the heart by direct injection into the heart muscle as guided by NOGA three-dimensional imaging of the heart.

After initially screening 320 patients with chronic heart failure, 15 were treated with standard care and the other 32 received the stem cell treatment. After a two-year follow-up, the results were remarkable: those who received the stem cell treatment showed an average 7% increase in ejection fraction versus 0.2% for receiving standard care, an almost 25 milliliter reduction in end systolic volume (measures degree of dilation of ventricle – not a good thing and the fact that it decreased is a very good thing) versus a 9 milliliter decrease for those receiving standard care, and were able to walk 62 meters further in 6 minutes as opposed to standard care group who walked 18 meters less in 6 minutes.

While these studies do not provide definitive answers to the bone marrow/heart treatment debate, they do extend the debate. Clearly bone marrow stem cells help some patients and do not help others. The difference between these two groups of patients continues to elude researchers. Also, how the bone marrow is processed is definitely important. When the cells are administered also seems to be important, but the exact time slot is not clear in human patients. It is also possible that some patients have poor quality bone marrow in the first place, and might be better served by allogeneic (someone else’s stem cells) treatments rather than autologous (the patient’s own stem cells) stem cell treatments.

Also, stem cell treatments for heart patients will probably need to be more sophisticated if they are to provide greater levels of healing. Heart muscle cells are required, but so are blood vessels to feed the new heart muscle. If mesenchymal stem cells work by activating resident heart stem cells, then maybe mesenchymal transplants should be accompanied by endothelial progenitor cell transplants (CD117+, CD45+ CD31+ cells from bone marrow) to provide the blood vessels necessary to replace the clogged blood vessels and the new heart muscle that is grown.

Synthetic Matrices that Induce Stem Cell-Mediated Bone Formation


Biomimetic matrices resemble living structures even though they are made from synthetic materials. Researchers in the laboratory of Shyni Varghese at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering have used calcium phosphate to direct mesenchymal stem cells to form bone. In doing so, Varghese and his colleagues have identified a surprising pathway from biomaterials to bone.

Varghese and his colleagues think that their work may point out new targets for treating bone defects, such as major fractures, and bone metabolic disorders such as osteoporosis.

The first goal of this research was to use materials to build something that looked like bone. This way, stem cells harvested from bone marrow (the squishy stuff inside our bones) could sense the presence of bone and differentiate into osteoblasts, the cells in our bodies that build bone.

“We knew for years that calcium phosphate-based materials promote osteogenic differentiation of stem cells, but none of use knew why.” said Varghese. “As engineers, we want to build something that is reproducible and consistent, so we need to know how building factors contribute to this end.”

Varghese and co-workers discovered that phosphate ions dissolved from calcium phosphate-based materials and these stray phosphate ions are taken up by the stem cells and used for the production of adenosine triphosphate or ATP. ATP is the energy currency of the cell, and it is the way cells store energy in a form that is readily usable for powering other reactions.

In stem cells, the generation of ATP eventually increases the intracellular concentration of the ATP breakdown product adenosine, and adenosine signals to stem cells to differentiate into osteoblasts and make bone.

Varghese said that she was surprised that “the biomaterials were connected to metabolic pathways. And we didn’t know how these metabolic pathways could influence stem cells,” and their commitment to bone formation.

These results also explain another clinical observation. Plastic surgeons have been using fat-based stem cells for eyelid lifts, breast augmentation, and other types of reconstructive surgeries. In once case, a plastic surgeon injected a dermal filler that contained calcium hydroxyapatite with the fat-based stem cells into a woman’s eyelid to provide an eye lift. However, the stem cells formed bone, and the poor lady’s lid painfully clicked every time she blinked and she had to have surgery to remove the ectopic bone. These results from Varghese’s laboratory explains why these fat-based stem cells formed bone in this case, and great care should be taken to never use such fillers in fat-based transplantation procedures.

Micro-Grooved Surfaces Influence Stem Cell Differentiation


Martin Knight and his colleagues from the Queen Mary’s School of Engineering and Materials Science and the Institute of Bioengineering in London, UK have shown that growing adult stem cells on micro-grooved surfaces disrupts a particular biochemical pathway that specified the length of a cellular structure called the “primary cilium.” Disruption of the primary cilium ultimately controls the subsequent behavior of these stem cells.

Primary cilia are about one thousand times narrower than a human hair. They are found in most cells and even though they were thought to be irrelevant at one time, this is clearly not the case.

Primary Cilium

The primary cilium acts as a sensory structure that responds to mechanical and chemical stimuli in the environment, and then communicates that external signal to the interior of the cell.  Most of the basic research on this structure was done using a single-celled alga called Chlamydomonas.

Martin Knight and his team, however, are certain that primary cilia in adult stem cells play a definite role in controlling cell differentiation.  Knight said, “Our research shows that they [primary cilia] play a key role in stem cell differentiation.  We found it’s possible to control stem cell specialization by manipulating primary cilia elongation, and that this occurs when stem cells are grown on these special grooved surfaces.”

When mesenchymal stromal cells were grown on grooved surfaces, the tension inside the cells was altered, and this remodeled the cytoskeleton of the cells.  Cytoskeleton refers to a rigid group of protein inside of cells that act as “rebar.” for the cell.  If you have ever worked with concrete, you will know that structural use of concrete requires the use of reinforcing metal bars to prevent the concrete from crumbling under the force of its own weight.  In the same way, cytoskeletal proteins reinforce the cell, give it shape, help it move, and help it resist shear forces.  Remodeling of the cytoskeleton can greatly change the behavior of the cell.

The primary cilium is important for stem cell differentiation.  Growing mesenchymal stromal cells on micro-grooved surfaces disrupts the primary cilium and prevents stem cell differentiation.  This simple culture technique can help maintain stem cells in an undifferentiated state until they have expanded enough for therapeutic purposes.

Once again we that there are ways to milk adult stem cells for all they are worth.  Destroying embryos is simply not necessary to save the lives of patients.

Controlling Transplanted Stem Cells from the Inside Out


Scientists have worked very hard to understand how to control stem cell differentiation.  However, despite how well you direct stem cell behavior in culture, once those stem cells have been transplanted, they will often do as they wish.  Sometimes, transplanted stem cells surprise people.

Several publications describe stem cells that, once transplanted undergo “heterotropic differentiation.” Heterotropic differentiation refers to tissues that form in the wrong place. For example, one lab found that transplantation of mesenchymal stem cells into mouse hearts after a heart attack produced bone (don’t believe me – see Martin Breitbach and others, “Potential risks of bone marrow cell transplantation into infarcted hearts.” Blood 2007 110:1362-1369).  Bone in the heart – that can’t be good. Therefore, new ways to control the differentiation of cells once they have been transplanted are a desirable goal for stem cell research.

From this motivation comes a weird but wonderful paper from Jeffrey Karp and James Ankrum of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and MIT, respectively, that loads stem cells with microparticles that give the transplanted stem cell continuous cues that tell them how to behave over the course of days or weeks as the particles degrade.

“Regardless of where the cell in the body, it’s going to be receiving its cues from the inside,” said Karp. “This is a completely different strategy than the current method of placing cells onto drug-doped microcarriers or scaffolds, which is limiting because the cells need to remain in close proximity to those materials in order to function. Also these types of materials are too large to be infused into the bloodstream.”

Controlling cells in culture is relatively easy. If cells take up the right molecules, they will change their behavior. This level of control, however, is lost after the cell is transplanted. Sometimes implanted cells readily respond to the environment within the body,. but other times, their behavior is erratic and unpredictable. Karp’s strategy, which her called “particle engineering,” corrects this problem by turning cells into pre-programmable units. The internalized particles stably remain inside the transplanted cell and instruct it precisely how to act. It can direct cells to release anti-inflammatory factors, or regenerate lost tissue and heal lesions or wounds.

“Once those particles are internalized into the cells, which can take on the order of 6-24 hours, we can deliver the transplant immediately or even cryopreserve the cells,” said Karp. “When the cells are thawed at the patient’s bedside, they can be administrated and the agents will start to be released inside the cells to control differentiation, immune modulation or matrix production, for example.”

It could take more than a decade for this type of cell therapy to be a common medical practice, but to speed up the pace of this research, Karp published the study to encourage others in the scientific community to apply the technique to their various fields. Karp’s paper also illustrates the range of different cell types that can be controlled by particle engineering, including stem cells, cells of the immune system, and pancreatic cells.

“With this versatile platform, which leveraged Harvard and MIT experts in drug delivery, cell engineering, and biology, we’ve demonstrated the ability to track cells in the body, control stem cell differentiation, and even change the way cells interact with immune cells, said Ankrum, who is a former graduate student in Karp’s laboratory. “We’re excited to see what applications other researchers will imagine using this platform.”

Stem Cell Therapy Following Meniscus Knee Surgery Reduces Pain and Regenerates Meniscus


According to a new study published in the January issue of the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery (JBJS), a single stem cell injection after meniscus knee surgery can provide pain relief and aid in meniscus regrowth.

In the US alone, over one million knee arthroscopy procedures are performed each year. These surgeries are usually prescribed to treat tears to the wedge-shaped piece of cartilage on either side of the knee called the “meniscus.” The meniscus acts as an important shock absorber between the thighbone (femur) and the shinbone (tibia) at the knee-joint.

Knee-Ligament-Pain-and-Strains-Meniscus-Tear-and-Pain

This novel study, “Adult Human Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSC) Delivered via Intra-Articular Injection to the Knee, Following Partial Medial Meniscectomy,” examined 55 patients who had undergone a surgical removal or all or part of a torn meniscus (known as a partial medial meniscectomy). Each patient was randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups: Groups A, B and C. The 18 patients in group A received a “low-dose” injection of 50 million stem cells within seven to 10 days after their meniscus surgery. Another 18 patients in group B received a higher dose of 150 million stem cells seven to ten days after their knee surgery. The controls group consisted of 19 patients who received injections of sodium hyaluronate only (no stem cells). All patients were evaluated to determine the safety of the procedure, the degree of meniscus regeneration (i.e. with MRI and X-ray images), the overall condition of the knee-joint, and the clinical outcomes through two years. Most of the patients enrolled in this study had some arthritis, but patients with severe (level three or four) arthritis, were excluded from the study.

Most of the patients who had received stem cell treatments reported a significant reduction in pain. 24 percent of the patients in one MSC group and 6 percent of the other showed at least a 15 percent increase in meniscal volume at one year. Unfortunately, there was no additional increase in meniscal volume at year two.

“The results demonstrated that high doses of mesenchymal stem cells can be safely delivered in a concentrated manner to a knee-joint without abnormal tissue formation,” said lead study author C. Thomas Vangsness, Jr., MD. “No one has ever done that before.” In addition, “the patients with arthritis got strong improvement in pain” and some experienced meniscal regrowth.

The key findings of this study are that there no abnormal (ectopic) tissue formation or “clinically important” safety issues identified. Also, 24 percent of the patients in the low-dose injection group (A) and six percent of the high-dose injection group (B) at one year showed “significantly increased meniscal volume,” as determined by an MRI, and this increase did not continue into the second year, but remained stable (should future studies try a second injection of MSCs?). Third, none of the patients in the control group (non-MSC group) showed significant meniscus regrowth. Finally, patients with osteoarthritis experienced a reduction in pain in the stem cell treatment groups, but there was no reduction in pain in the control (non-MSC group).

“The results of this study suggest that mesenchymal stem cells have the potential to improve the overall condition of the knee joint,” said Dr. Vangsness. “I am very excited and encouraged” by the results. With the success of a single injection, “it begs the question: What if we give a series of injections?”

Transplanted Liver Cells do Better When Co-Cultured with Mesenchymal Stem Cells


Implanting frozen liver cells is a relatively new procedure that has, reportedly, been used to treat very young patients with liver problems. Thawing frozen liver cells, however, tends to cause a fraction of the cells to die off and other damaged cells show poor function.

To ameliorate this problem, researchers at Kings College Hospital, London have used mesenchymal stem cells from fat or umbilical cord to improve the viability and function of frozen liver cells.

Emer Fitzpatrick and her colleagues at Kings College Hospital reasoned that mesenchymal stem cells and the multitudes of healing molecules that these cells secrete should be able to “lend proregenerative characteristics to liver cells.”

Thus by co-culturing thawed liver cells with mesenchymal stem cells from fat or umbilical cord, Fitzpatrick and others demonstrated that the rate of cell survival of the liver cells and their functionality increased in comparison with liver cells grown on their own.

Fitzpatrick hopes that such a co-culture technique might improve the clinical usefulness of frozen liver cells for transplantation.

New Tool for Stem Cell Transplantation into the Heart


Researchers from the famed Mayo Clinic, in collaboration with scientists at a biopharmaceutical biotechnology company in Belgium have invented a specialized catheter for transplanting stem cells into a beating heart.

This new device contains a curved needle with graded openings along the shaft of the needle. The cells are released into the needle and out through the openings in the side of the needle shaft. This results in maximum retention of implanted stem cells to repair the heart.

“Although biotherapies are increasingly more sophisticated, the tools for delivering regenerative therapies demonstrate a limited capacity in achieving high cell retention in the heart,” said Atta Behfar, the lead author of this study and a cardiologist. “Retention of cells is, of course, crucial to an effective, practical therapy.”

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine in Rochester, MN and Cardio3 Biosciences in Mont-Saint-Guibert, Belgium, collaborated to develop the device. Development of this technology began by modeling the dynamic motions of the heart in a computer model. Once the Belgium group had refined this computer model, the model was tested in North America for safety and retention efficiency.

These experiments showed that the new, curved design of the catheter eliminates backflow and minimizes cell loss. The graded holes that go from small to large diameters decrease the pressures in the heart and this helps properly target the cells. This new design works well in healthy and damaged hearts.

Clinical trials are already testing this new catheter. In Europe, the CHART-1 clinical trial is presently underway, and this is the first phase 3 trial to examine the regeneration of heart muscle in heart attack patients.

These particular studies are the culmination of years of basic science research at Mayo Clinic and earlier clinical studies with Cardio3 BioSciences and Cardiovascular Centre in Aalst, Belgium, which were conducted between 2009 and 2010.  This study, the C-CURE or Cardiopoietic stem Cell therapy in heart failURE study examined 47 patients, (15 control and 32 experimental) who received injections of bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells from their own bone marrow into their heart muscle.  Control patients only received standard care.  After six months, those patients who received the stem cell treatment showed an increase in heart function and the distance they could walk in six minutes.   No adverse effects were observed in the stem cell recipients.

This study established the efficacy of mesenchymal stem cell treatments in heart attack patients.  However, other animal and computer studies established the efficacy of this new catheter for injecting heart muscle with stem cells.  Hopefully, the results of the CHART-1 study will be available soon.

Postscript:  The CHART-2 clinical trial is also starting.  See this video about it.