AUF1 Gene Important Inducer of Muscle Repair


A new study in the laboratory of Robert J. Schneider at NYU Langone and his collaborators has uncovered a gene that plays integral roles in the repair of injured muscle throughout life. This investigation shows that this previously “overlooked” gene might play a pivotal role in “sarcopenia,” which refers to the loss of muscle tissues with age.

This collaboration between scientists at NYU Langone Medical Center and the University of Colorado at Boulder showed that the levels of a protein called AUF1 determine if stem cell populations retain the ability to regenerate muscle after injury and as mice age.

Changes in the activity of AUF1 have also been linked by past studies to human muscle diseases. More than 30 genetic diseases, known collectively as myopathies, show defective muscle regeneration and these anomalies cause muscles to weaken or waste away.

For example, muscular dystrophy is a disease in which abnormal muscles fail to function properly and undergo normal repair. Although the signs and symptoms of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy vary, in some cases wildly, this disease develops in infants and affects and weakens the torso and limb muscles beginning in young adulthood. Sarcopenia, in healthy individuals occurs in older patients.

Skeletal muscles have a stem cell population set aside for muscle repair known as satellite cells. These cells divide and differentiate into skeletal muscle when skeletal muscle is damaged, and as we age, the capacity of muscle satellite cells to repair muscle decreases.

AUF1 is a protein that regulates muscle stem cell function by inducing the degradation of specific, targeted messenger RNAs (mRNAs). According to Robert Schneider, “This work places the origin of certain muscle diseases squarely within muscle stem cells, and shows that AUF1 is a vital controller of adult muscle stem cell fate.” He continued: “The stem cell supply is remarkably depleted when the AUF1 signal is defective, leaving muscles to deteriorate a little more each time repair fails after injury.”

The experiments in this study demonstrated that mice that lack AUF1 display accelerated skeletal muscle wasting as they age. These AUF1-depleted mice also showed impaired skeletal muscle repair following injury. When the molecular characteristics of these AUF1-depleted muscle satellite cells were examined, Schneider and his collaborators showed that auf1−/− satellite cells had increased stability and overexpression of so-called “ARE-mRNAs.” ARE mRNAs contain AU-rich elements at their tail-ends. AUF1 proteins bind to these ARE mRNAs and induce their degradation. In the absence of AUF1, muscle satellite cells accumulate ARE mRNAs. One of these ARE mRNAs includes that which encodes matrix metalloprotease, MMP9. Overexpression of MMP9 by aging muscle satellite cells causes degradation of the skeletal muscle matrix, which prevents satellite-cell-mediated regeneration of muscles. Consequently, the muscle satellite cells return to their quiescent state and fail to divide and repair skeletal muscle.

When Schneider and his coworkers and collaborators blocked MMP9 activity in auf1−/− mice, they found that they had restored skeletal muscle repair and maintenance of the satellite cell population.

These experiments suggest that repurposing drugs originally developed for cancer treatment that blocks MMP9 activity might be a way to dial down age-related sarcopenia.

“This provides a potential path to clinical treatments that accelerate muscle regeneration following traumatic injury, or in patients with certain types of adult onset muscular dystrophy,” said Schneider.

This work was published here: Devon M. Chenette et al., “Targeted mRNA Decay by RNA Binding Protein AUF1 Regulates Adult Muscle Stem Cell Fate, Promoting Skeletal Muscle Integrity,” Cell Reports, 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2016.06.095.

Beta-Integrin Implicated In Slow Healing Of Aged Muscles


With age, the function and regenerative abilities of skeletal muscles decrease. Therefore, the elderly can find it difficult to recover from injury or surgery.

A new study from the laboratory of Chen-Ming Fan from Johns Hopkins University has shown that a protein called β1-integrin is crucial for muscle regeneration. β1-integrin seems to provide a promising target for therapeutic intervention to combat muscle aging or disease.

Muscle stem cells are the primary source of muscle regeneration after muscle injury from exercise, accidents, or surgery. These specialized adult stem cells lie dormant in the muscle tissue, and muscles even have them stored off to the side of the individual muscle fibers. Because of their location, these muscle stem cells are known as muscle “satellite cells.” After damage, these satellite cells awaken and proliferate, and go on to make new muscle fibers and restore muscle function. Some satellite cells return to dormancy, which allows the muscle to keep a reservoir of healing cells that can repair the muscle over and over again. Fan and her colleagues determined that proteins called integrins, and in particular, β1-integrin, are integral for maintaining the cycle of hibernation, activation, proliferation, and then return to hibernation, in muscle stem cells.

Integrins are cell surface proteins that provide tight connections between cells and the immediate external environment.

Integrin Dimer Structure: Globular domain structures of α and β subunits in a stable dimer. Ligand binding happens at the interface of the αI (left panel) or β-propeller (right panel) and the βI domain.
Integrin Dimer Structure: Globular domain structures of α and β subunits in a stable dimer. Ligand binding happens at the interface of the αI (left panel) or β-propeller (right panel) and the βI domain.

Without integrins, almost every stage of the regeneration is disrupted. Fan and her group predicted that defects in β1-integrin likely contribute to aging, which is associated with reduced muscle stem cell function and decreased quantities of muscle stem cells. This means that healing after injury or surgery is very slow, which can cause a long period of immobility and an accompanying loss of muscle mass. Inefficient muscular healing in the elderly is a significant clinical problem. Therapeutic approaches would be quite welcome by the aging population and their physicians. One way to improve muscle regeneration would be to stimulate muscle satellite cells in older individuals.

Fan and others determined that β1-integrin function is diminished in aged muscle stem cells. When they artificially activated integrins in aged mice, their regenerative abilities were restored to youthful levels. Improvement in regeneration, strength, and function were also seen when this treatment was applied to animals with muscular dystrophy, which underscores the potential importance of such an approach for the treatment of muscle disorders.

Muscle stem cells use β1-integrin to interact with many other proteins in the external environment of the muscle. Among this forest of proteins in the external environment of the muscle, Fan and her coworkers found one called fibronectin that might be the most relevant. They discovered that aged muscles contain substantially less fibronectin compared to young muscles. Like β1-integrin, eliminating fibronectin from young muscles makes them function as though they were old. However, restoring fibronectin to aged muscle tissue restores muscle regeneration to youthful levels. Fan’s group demonstrated a strong link between β1-integrin, fibronectin and muscle stem cell regeneration.

Taken together, the results show that aged muscle stem cells with compromised β1-integrin activity and aged muscles with insufficient amount of fibronectin both root causes of muscle aging. This makes β1-integrin and fibronectin very promising therapeutic targets.

This work appeared in the following journal: Michelle Rozo et al., “Targeting β1-integrin signaling enhances regeneration in aged and dystrophic muscle in mice,” Nature Medicine, 2016; DOI: 10.1038/nm.4116.

LIF Increases Muscle Satellite Expansion in Culture and Transplantation Efficiency


Transplantation of satellite stem cells, which are found in skeletal muscles, might potentially treat degenerative muscle diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy. However, muscle satellite cells have an unfortunate tendency to lose their ability to be transplanted then they are grown in culture.

In order to generate enough cells for transplantation, the cells are isolated from the body and then they must be grown in culture. However, in order to properly grow in culture, the cells must be prevented from differentiating because fully differentiated cells stop growing and die soon after transplantation. Several growth factors, cytokines, and chemicals have been used in muscle satellite cell culture systems. Unfortunately, the optimal culture conditions required to maintain the undifferentiated state, inhibit differentiation, and enhance eventual transplantation efficiency have not yet been established satisfactorily.

Because it is impossible to extract enough satellite cells for therapeutic purposed from biopsies, these cells must be expanded in culture. However this very act of culturing satellite cells renders them inefficient for clinical purposes. How can we break away from this clinical catch-22?

Shin’ichi Takeda from the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry and his colleagues have used growth factors to maintain muscle satellite cell efficiency during cell culture. In particular, Takeda and others used a growth factor called leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF). LIF effectively maintains the undifferentiated state of the satellite cells and enhances their expansion and transplantation efficiency. LIF is also thought to be involved in muscle regeneration.

This is the first study on the effect of LIF on the transplantation efficiency of primary satellite cells,” said Shin’ichi Takeda of the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry. “This research enables us to get one step closer to the optimal culture conditions for muscle stem cells.”

The precise mechanisms by which LIF enhances transplantation efficiency remain unknown. Present work is trying to determine the downstream targets of LIF. Identifying the precise mechanisms by which LIF enhances satellite cell transplantation efficiency would help to clarify the functional importance of LIF in muscle regeneration, and, even more importantly, further its potential application in cell transplantation therapy.

The reference for this paper is: N. Ito et al., “Enhancement of Satellite Cell Transplantation Efficiency by Leukemia Inhibitory Factor,” Journal of Neuromuscular Diseases, 2016; 3 (2): 201. DOI: 10.3233/JND-160156.

Human Muscle Satellite Cells Isolated and Characterized


A research group from the University of California, San Francisco have isolated and characterized human muscle stem cells. In addition, they have established that these stem cells can robustly replicate and repair damaged muscles when they are grafted onto an injured site. These remarkable findings might open the door to potential treatments for patients with severe muscle injuries, paralysis or genetic diseases that adversely affect skeletal muscles (e.g., muscular dystrophy).

Jason Pomerantz, MD is an assistant professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at UCSF, and served as the managing author of this work. “We’ve shown definitively that these are bona-fide stem cells that can self-renew, proliferate and respond to injury,” said Pomerantz.

Badly damaged muscles can suffer terrible depletion of their native populations of stem cells or even obliteration of the stem cell niches and populations. Since such muscles have lost the very things that can heal them, these muscles will not be able to heal the damage they have sustained. This very fact represents a terrible hurdle for physicians who specialize in patients who have been crippled by muscle injury and paralysis. One of the worse cases is those conditions that cause damage or paralysis in the critical small muscles of the face, hand and eye, according to Pomerantz.

When muscles are badly damaged, they can lose the native populations of stem cells that are needed to heal. This has posed a major roadblock for treating patients crippled by muscle injury and paralysis, particularly in the critical small muscles of the face, hand and eye, Pomerantz said.

Fortunately, there have been remarkable surgical advances in restoring nerves in damaged muscles. Unfortunately, if the healing process takes too long, the stem cell pool is exhausted and the regenerative capacity is attenuated and eventually. Such injured muscles fail to connect to the nerve tissue and without accompanying motor and sensory nerves, skeletal muscles then to degenerate.

“This is partly why we haven’t had major progress in treating these patients in 30 years,” Pomerantz said. “We know we can get the axons there, but we need the stem cells for there to be recovery.”

A group of stem cells called “satellite cells” line the borders of muscle fibers and, in mice, can function as stem cells and contribute to muscle growth and repair. Until now, however, it wasn’t clear whether human satellite cells worked the same way. It was also terribly unclear how to isolate muscle satellite cells from human tissue samples or even adapt them to help treat patients with muscle damage.

Muscle satellite cells in section

Pomerantz and colleagues tackled this problem used muscle tissue from surgical biopsies of muscles of the head, trunk and leg. Then they used antibody staining to show that human satellite cells can be identified by the expression of the transcription factor PAX7 in combination with the cell-surface proteins CD56 and CD29. Pomerantz and his colleagues use this molecular signature to isolate populations of human satellite cells from these patient biopsies. Then they grafted these satellite cells into mice with damaged muscles whose own muscle stem-cell populations had been depleted. Five weeks after the transplantation, these human cells had successfully integrated into the mouse muscles and divided to produce families of daughter stem cells; effectively replenishing the stem cell niche and repairing the damaged muscle tissue.

This characterization of human muscle stem cells and the ability to transplant them into injured muscles has varied and wide-ranging implications for patients who are presently suffering from muscle paralysis, whose damaged muscles have lost the ability to regenerate. Additionally, protocols that allow us to isolate and manipulate human stem cells also may have applications for understanding why our muscles lose their regenerative capacity during normal aging or in the case of genetic diseases such as muscular dystrophy.

“This gives us hope that we will be able to extract healthy stem cells from other muscles in the patient’s body and transplant them at the site of injury,” Pomerantz said. “If replenishing a healthy muscle stem cell pool facilitates reinnervation and recovery, it would be a significant leap forward.”

These findings appeared the Sept. 8 edition in the open access Cell Press journal, Stem Cell Reports.

Lab-Grown Muscle FIbers Aid in Studying Muscular Dystrophy


Skeletal muscle is the most abundant tissue in the human body, but, strangely, growing large quantities of it in the laboratory have proven rather challenging. While it is possible to reprogram other mature cells into heart muscle cells, or neurons, differentiating cells into skeletal muscle cells has simply not worked. So where do we go from here?

A new study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) published in Nature Biotechnology has identified and even mimicked integral cues in the development of skeletal muscle. They used these cues to grow millimeter-long muscle fibers that are capable of contracting in the laboratory. This new method for growing functional muscle fibers in the laboratory potentially offer a better model for studying muscle diseases such as muscular dystrophy and for testing new treatments for these diseases.

Previous studies have used genetic modification techniques to grow small numbers of skeletal muscle cells in the laboratory. However, this new technique, which is the result of a collaboration between BWH and Harvard Stem Cell Institute, has produced a way to grow large numbers of skeletal muscle cells for use in clinical applications.

Olivier Pourquié of Harvard Medical School said, “We took the hard route: we wanted to recapitulate all of the early stages of muscle cell development that happen in the body and recreate that in a dish in the lab. We analyzed each stage of early development, and generated cell lines that glowed green when they reached a each stage. Going step by step, we managed to mimic each stage of development and coax cells toward muscle cell fate.”

The team found that a combination of secreted factors are important at the very early stages of embryonic development to stimulate muscle differentiation. By recapitulation this cocktail in the laboratory, Pourquié and his colleagues were able to mature muscle fibers in the laboratory from mouse or human pluripotent stem cells. Additionally, they produced muscle fibers in mice afflicted with muscular dystrophy by using muscle satellite cells. It is unknown if this method could help humans who suffer from muscular dystrophy, as more research is needed.

“This has been the missing piece: the ability to produce muscle cells in the lab could give us the ability to test out new treatments and tackle a spectrum of muscle diseases,” Pourquié said.

This new method also has the potential to help researchers study other muscle diseases, such as sarcopenia, or degenerative muscle loss and cachexia, the wasting away of muscle that typically occurs during severe illness.

Gene Controls Proliferation of Muscle Stem Cells


Fortunately, skeletal muscles have a high potential for regeneration, unlike other organs. When injured, muscle stem cells, known as satellite cells and located between the individual muscle fibers, rapidly begin to proliferate and subsequently replace the damaged muscles cells. New research from researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research in Bad Nauheim, Germany, have shown that a protein called Prmt5 plays a key role in regulating the activity of muscle satellite cells. These data gave rise to new studies that would like to examine the impact of Prmt5 in muscle disorders.

Satellite cells in skeletal muscles are small, spherical stem cells in between the individual muscles fibers. Normally, these cells remain almost completely inactive, but when a muscle is immediately begin to proliferate and heal the injury by replacing damaged muscles fibers.

satellite_cells

When satellite cells react to an injury, they undergo a transition from their inactive state to one of increased activity. This transition must be finely balanced because uncontrolled proliferation of satellite cells in healthy muscle tissue increases the risk of tumor formation. Conversely, muscle regeneration is impeded if the satellite cells are not activated fast enough when muscles are injured.

satellite cells
satellite cells

Now a research team headed by Thomas Braun from the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research in Bad Nauheim has now identified a gene that plays a decisive role in regulating the activity of satellite cells. Braun and his colleagues isolated muscle satellite cells from laboratory mice and identified 120 genes that are instrumental for the function of these cells.

Next, they switched off one of these genes, Prmt5, in the satellite cells of adult mice. “In healthy mice, switching off Prmt5 in the satellite cells had no effect on the muscles. But when the mice had a muscle injury, the results were completely different”, says Ting Zhang, the study’s lead author. No signs of regeneration were observed in Prmt5-deficient mice, but the muscles of control mice that had an active Prmt5 gene healed normally. “Instead of growing new muscle tissue, the mice without Prmt5 eventually developed clear signs of fibrosis”.

Braun and others further examined how Prmt5 regulates muscle regeneration. In mice without Prmt5, the number of satellite cells was noticeably reduced. Prmt5 seems to regulate proliferation activity of satellite cells. Furthermore, these results indicated that Prmt5 also prevents satellite cells from dying prematurely and plays a key role in transforming them into functional muscle fibers.

Braun and his colleagues hope their study will help them gain a better understanding of muscle disorders in humans. “The loss of muscle tissue in the absence of Prmt5 shows clear parallels to degenerative muscle disorders such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy”, says Johnny Kim, a member of Braun’s working group. In fact, the Bad Nauheim team now hopes that in the future, mice lacking the Prmt5 gene can serve as models for this particular disorder. “But we also want to study the etiological effects of Prmt5 regarding the genesis of muscular hypertrophies and certain tumor types,” Kim adds.

“In Body” Muscle Regeneration


Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine have hit upon a new strategy for tissue healing: mobilizing the body’s stem cells to the site of injury. Thus harnessing the body’s natural healing powers might make “in body” regeneration of muscle tissue is a possibility.

Sang Jin Lee, assistant professor of Medicine at Wake Forest, and his colleagues implanted small bits of biomaterial scaffolds into the legs of rats and mice. When they embedded these scaffolds with proteins that mobilize muscle stem cells (like insulin-like growth factor-1 or IGF-1), the stem cells migrated from the muscles to the bioscaffolds and formed muscle tissue.

“Working to leverage the body’s own regenerative properties, we designed a muscle-specific scaffolding system that can actively participate in functional tissue regeneration,” said Lee. “This is a proof-of-concept study that we hope can one day be applied to human patients.”

If patients have large sections of muscle removed because of infections, tumors or accidents, muscle grafts from other parts of the body are typically used to restore at least some of the missing muscle. Several laboratories are trying the grow muscle in the laboratory from muscle biopsies that can be then transplanted back into the patient. Growing muscle on scaffolds fashioned from biomaterials have also proven successful.

Lee’s technique overcomes some of the short-comings of these aforementioned procedures. As Lee put it, “Our aim was to bypass the challenges of both of these techniques and to demonstrate the mobilization of muscle cells to a target-specific site for muscle regeneration.”

Most tissues in our bodies contain a resident stem cell population that serves to regenerate the tissue as needed. Lee and his colleagues wanted to determine if these resident stem cells could be coaxed to move from the tissue or origin, muscle in this case, and embeds themselves in an implanted scaffold.

In their first experiments, Lee and his team implanted scaffolds into the leg muscles of rats. After retrieving them several weeks later, it was clear that the muscle stem cell population (muscle satellite cells) not only migrated into the scaffold, but other stem cell populations had also taken up residence in the scaffolds. These scaffolds were also contained an interspersed network of blood vessels only 4 weeks aster transplantation.

In their next experiments, Lee and others laced the scaffolds with different cocktails of proteins to boost the stem cell recruitment properties of the implanted scaffolds. The protein that showed the most robust stem cell recruitment ability was IGF-1. In fact, IGF-1-laced scaffolds had four times the number of cells as plain scaffolds and increased formation of muscle fibers.

“The protein [IGF-1] effectively promoted cell recruitment and accelerated muscle regeneration,” said Lee.

For their next project, Lee would like to test the ability of his scaffolds to promote muscle regeneration in larger laboratory animals.

Inhibition of signaling pathway stimulates adult muscle satellite cell function


Stem cell researcher Michael Rudnicki and his team from the University of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada has done it again. Rudnicki works on muscle stem cells and his work has greatly expanded our understanding of muscle satellite cells.

Muscle satellite cells are found in skeletal muscle, and they are a prime example of a “unipotent” stem cell, or a stem cell that can differentiate into only one cell type. Muscle satellite cells can only form skeletal muscle, but they can be isolated from skeletal muscle and grown in culture. When muscle is injured by exercise or shear forces, satellite cells move into action and divide to form muscle cells that fuse with existing muscle cells and firm them up. Lifting weights will also increase the activity of satellite cells and they will divide and contribute to the formation of new muscle fibers.

As we age, our capacity to regenerate damaged muscle slows way down. As someone who lifted weights in high school and then on and of after high school, I can attest to this as I have entered my later years. My joints get sore faster and I cannot handle heavier weights any more. Also, I do not get big from lifting anymore. This is due to the reduction in muscle repair and I have become older.

Rudnicki and others have identified a reduced capacity in adult mice to repair their muscles, and this reduction in muscle regenerative ability has been directly linked to reduced muscle satellite cell activity. Aged mice have muscle satellite cells that show a diminished ability to contribute to muscle regeneration and repopulate themselves.

In a recent paper published in the journal Nature Medicine, Rudnicki and his colleagues compared used gene expression profiles in the satellite cells of older and younger mice. Curiously, they identified the genes that encode the components of a cell signaling pathway called the “JAK-STAT” pathway that are more highly expressed in the satellite cells of older mice than in those of younger mice.

These data suggested that inhibition of the JAK-STAT pathway in the satellite cells of older mice might lead to higher satellite cell activity in older mice. Fortunately, there are drugs that will inhibit the JAK-STAT signaling pathway.

Knockdown of the activity of the Jak2 or Stat3 proteins significantly stimulated satellite stem cell divisions in culture (the satellite cells were grown in cultured muscles). When Jak2 of Stat3 were inhibited genetically (by introducing loss-of-function mutations in these genes), the isolated satellite cells showed a markedly ability to repopulate local satellite cell populations after they were transplanted into a wounded muscle.

Inhibition of Jak2 and Stat3 activity with drugs also stimulated the engraftment of satellite cells in a living animal. If these same rugs were injected into the muscle of older laboratory mice, these mice showed marked enhancement of muscle repair and force generation after injury.

Thus, these results from the Rudnicki lab show that they is an intrinsic property of satellite cells that separate the satellite cells of younger animals with those of older animals. These results also suggest a promising therapeutic avenue for the treatment of muscle-wasting diseases.

Duke University Tissue Engineering Team Grows Self-Healing Muscle in Laboratory


Scientists have grown living muscle in the lab. While this is nothing new, this new advance has succeeded in making muscle that not only looks and works like genuine skeletal muscle, but also heals by itself, which is a significant advance in the field of tissue engineering.

This ultimate goal of this research is to use lab-grown muscle repair muscle damage in human patients. To date, preclinical trials have shown that lab-grown muscle properly regenerated damaged muscle in laboratory mice.

This research comes from Duke University, and the research team responsible for this work thinks that their success was due to the culture environment that they have created to grow muscle in the laboratory. Their well-developed contractile muscle fibers also contained a pool of satellite cells, which are an immature stem cell population in skeletal muscle that are activated when the muscle is damaged. Satellite cells can divide and differentiate into normal muscle tissue in order to heal muscle damage.

Cultured Muscle

Laboratory tests showed that the lab-grown muscle was as strong and good at contracting as muscle isolated from living organism. Also, the laboratory-grown muscle was able to use its satellite cell population to repair itself when the muscle was damaged with toxic chemicals.

Muscle satellite cells

When it was grafted into laboratory mice, the muscle properly integrate into the rest of the surrounding tissue and functioned beautifully when called upon to do so.

The Duke team, however, stresses that more tests must be conducted before this work can be translated into human patients.

The lead researcher for this work, Nenad Bursac, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University, said: “The muscle we have made represents an important advance for the field. It’s the first time engineered muscle has been created that contracts as strongly as native neonatal [newborn] skeletal muscle.”

UK expert in skeletal muscle tissue engineering Prof Mark Lewis, from Loughborough University, said: “A number of researchers have ‘grown’ muscles in the laboratory and shown that they can behave in similar ways to that seen in the human body. However, transplantation of these grown muscles into a living creature, which continue to function as if they were native muscle has been taken to the next level by the current work.”

Tissue engineering seeks to use stem cells to fashion new organs and tissues from cultured stem cells. Tissue engineering and stem cell biology will certainly transform regenerative medicine, and in many ways it is already doing so. Scientists have already made mini-livers and kidneys in the lab using stem cells, and others are using stem cells to heal damaged heart muscles. Even though some cures and treatments are still some years away, advances continue to pile up. The future of medicine is upon us.

Muscle Fusion Protein Identified – Better Muscular Disease Treatment


A research laboratory lead by Jean-François Côté at the Institut de Recherches Cliniques de Montréal, Montreal, Canada has identified an elusive protein that mediates the fusion of muscle precursor cells into mature muscle.

The development of skeletal muscles depends on the migration of muscle precursor cells called “myoblasts” to migrate to the right location and then fuse with each other to form the multi-nucleate skeletal muscle cells. This finding has the potential to improve the treatment of muscular diseases such as myopathies and muscular dystrophies.

“For several years, we have been studying myogenesis, a process by which muscles are formed during development,” said Côté.

In the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, muscle fusion is rather well understood. A protein called “Myoblast City” and a scaffolding protein called “ELMO” activate the Rac protein in response the muscle precursor cells adhering to surfaces. Rac initiates the intracellular mechanisms that culminate in muscle fusion.  In vertebrates, the ELMO protein exists in muscle precursor cells and a vertebrate version of the myoblast city protein called DOCK1. However, identifying the receptor that kicks this process off had proven difficult.

Drosophila myoblast fusion

Myoblast fusion plays a central role in muscle development because it determines muscle size. Also, the fusion of existing muscle fibers with muscle stem cells helps regenerate and maintain adult muscles. This fusion process has always been a poorly understood process.

Myoblast fusion

However, Côté and his co-workers have identified a receptor called BAI3 as one of the crucial links in myoblast fusion. BAI3 activates a signaling process that initiates the fusion of nearby myoblasts.

In 2008, Côté and his colleagues elucidated the role of two proteins – DOCK1 and DOCK5 – in the development of muscles. DOCK1 and DOCK5 regulate myoblast fusion. When the interaction between BAI3 and the DOCK signaling proteins is inhibited, myoblast fusion is also inhibited.

Côté pointed out that this work could have far-reaching implications, since the delivery of functional proteins to diseased muscle is typically carried out by introducing genetically engineered stem cells into the muscle that fuse with the disease muscle. By increasing the efficiency of the muscle fusion process, the delivery of genes to diseased muscles could become routine rather than painstakingly inefficient.

Making Heart Muscle from Skeletal Muscle Stem Cells


Several experiments in animals and a few clinical trials in human patients have shown that implanting skeletal muscle cells isolated from muscle biopsies into the heart after a heart attack can help the heart to some degree, but the implanted skeletal muscle cells do not integrate into the existing heart muscle mass and the skeletal muscle cells do not differentiate into heart muscle cells.

Experiments like those mentioned above utilized muscle satellite cells. Muscle satellite cells are a resident stem cell population that respond to muscle damage and divide to form skeletal muscle cells form new muscle. Satellite cells are a perfect example of a unipotent stem cell, which is to say a cell that makes one type of terminally differentiated cell type.

Skeletal muscles, however, have another cell population called muscle-derived stem cells or MDSCs. MDSCs express an entirely different set of cell surface proteins than satellite cells, and have the capacity to differentiate into skeletal muscle, smooth muscle, bone, tendon, nerve, endothelial and hematopoietic cells. MDSCs grow well in culture, tolerate low oxygen conditions quite well, and show excellent regenerative potential.

Other laboratories have managed to culture MDSCs in collagen and produce beating heart muscle cells. Others have observed MDSCs forming a proper myocardium under certain conditions. Several studies have established the ability to MDSCs to treat laboratory animals that have suffered a heart attack. The most recent work from Sekiya and others has established that cell sheets made from MDSCs can reduce dilation of the left ventricle, increased capillary density, and promoted recovery without causing erratic heat beat patterns.

Despite their obvious efficacy. MDSCs remain difficult to isolate in high enough numbers to therapeutic purposes. None of the cell surface molecules sported by MDSCs are unique to those cells. Therefore, getting clean cultures of MDSCs remains a challenge. Still, these cells represent some of the best hopes for regenerative medicine in the heart. These cells do form heart muscle cells and heal ailing hearts. They can be grown in bioreactors to high numbers and can also be combined with engineered materials to shore up a damaged heart and mediate its regeneration. While the use of MDSCs is still in its infancy, the promise certainly is there.

Molecular Signature Distinguished Old Stem Cells from New Stem Cells


Eukaryotic organisms include every living thing with the exception of bacteria, Bacteria are known as prokaryotes, and they do not have an organized nucleus. Eukaryotic cells, on the other hand, have an organized nucleus in which that houses the chromosomes, which are linear molecules of DNA.

DNA is the molecule that stores genetic information. The chromosomes of eukaryotic organisms are sometimes rather long. How then does the cell manage to store all that DNA in such a small compartment such as the nucleus? The answer is that DNA in eukaryotic cells is wound into a tight configuration known as chromatin.

Chromatin consists of DNA molecules that are spooled around a cylindrical structure made of histone proteins. There are four so-called “core histones” that compose the cylinders and the DNA winds around these histone cores. Then a non-core histone called H1 pulls the histone cylinders with their DNA wound about them together to form higher-order structures. The histone cylinders wound about with DNA are called “nucleosomes” or “core particles.” The assembled clusters to nucleosomes are called “30 nanometer solenoids.”

Chromatin1

You might think that DNA all wound into chromatin would be difficult to access and transcribe.  If you think that, then you are correct.  How then does the cell access DNA wound into chromatin? It modifies the histones so that the grip the histones have on the DNA is loosened.  Since histones are positively charged and DNA is negatively charged (lots of phosphate), the two molecules bind to each other rather tightly.  However, If histones are decorated with acetate groups, they become less positively charged and bind to DNA less tightly.  This opens up the chromatin for gene expression.  However, if histones are decorated with methyl groups (CH3), then proteins bind the histones and cinch the DNA even more tightly so that nothing is expressed.  This is known as the “histone code,” since geneticists can use the chemical modifications of histones to make highly educated guesses about if genes will be expressed and the levels at which they will be expressed.

A research team at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, led my Thomas Rando, professor of neurological sciences and chief of the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System’s Neurology service, has identified characteristic differences in histone modifications between stem cells from the muscles of young mice and old mice.  Rando’s team also identified histone signatures characteristic of sleeping or quiescent and active stem cells in the muscles of young mice.

Rando said, “We’ve been trying to understand both how the different states a cell finds itself in can be defined by the markings on the histones surrounding its DNA, and to find an objective way to define the ‘age’ of a cell.”

All the cells of our body share the same genes, but these cells can be remarkably different in their function, structure, shape, and metabolism.  Only a fraction of a cell’s genes are actually turned one and are actively making proteins.  A muscle cells produced muscle-specific proteins and a liver cell makes liver cell specific proteins.  Rando’s team has generated data that suggests that these same kinds of on/off differences may distinguish old stem cells from young stem cells.

First a little background in necessary.  In 2005, Rando and others published a study that demonstrated that stem cells in several tissues from older mice, including muscle, seemed to act younger after continued exposure to the blood of a younger mouse.  The capacity of these stem cells in older mice to divide, differentiate, and repopulate tissues declines with advancing age.  However, after these stem cells from older mice were exposed to younger mouse’s blood, their ability to proliferate and repair tissues resembled those of their stem-cell counterparts in younger animals (see Conboy IM et al., Nature. 2005 433(7027):760-4).

Rando and his group asked the next question: “What is happening inside these cells that make them act as though they are younger?”  The first place Rando and others decided to look was the chemical modifications of their histones.  The cell population they examined was muscle satellite cells, which are relatively easy to isolate and grow in culture.  Normally, muscle satellite cells sit within skeletal muscles and do well little.  However, once the muscle is damaged, muscle satellite cells wake up, swing into action, and divide and fuse with damaged muscle fibers to repair them.

Muscle Satellite Cells in green
Muscle Satellite Cells in green

In mice that are old, histones in muscle satellite cells are a mixture of signals that tell expression to stop and signals that tell gene expression to go.  However, in satellite cells from younger mice, the histones are largely a collection of go signals with only few stop signals.  According to Rando, “Satellite cells can sit around for practically a lifetime in a quiescent state, not doing much of anything.  But they’re ready to transform to an activated state as soon as they get the word that the tissue needs repair.  So you might think that satellite cells would be already programmed in a way that commits them solely to the ‘mature muscle cell’ state.”  Thus you would expect those genes specific for other tissues like skin, brain or fat would be marked with stop signals.

Instead quiescent satellite cells taken from the younger mice contained histones with a mixture of stop and go signals in those genes ordinarily reserved for other tissues.  This was similar to what was observed in mature muscle-specific genes.  Satellite cells from older mice were pockmarked with stop signals interspersed with go signals.

Are these changes typical of those that occur in other types of stem cells in other tissues?  That is presently unknown.  Also, what is the signal in the blood from the younger mice that causes the satellite cells function as though they are young?”  Rando said, “We don’t have the answers yet.  But now that we know what kinds of these changes occur as these cells age, we can ask which of these changes reverse themselves when an old cell goes back to becoming a young cell.”

Rando’s group is presently examining if the signatures they have identified in satellite cells generalize to other kinds of adult stem cells as well.

For Treating Heart Attacks, Satellite Cells Lacking MyoD are Superior to Those With MyoD


Atsushi Asakura and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute have extended some of their earlier findings in a paper that appeared in PLoS One last year. This paper is almost a year old by now, but its results are fascinating and are definitely worth examining.

In 2007, Asakura published a paper with the Canadian researcher Michael A. Rudnicki in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In this paper, Asakura and his colleagues examined the ability of muscle satellite cells from MyoD- mice to integrate into injured muscle. I realize that last sentence just sounded like gobbledygook, to some of you, but I will try to put the cookies on a lower shelf.

Satellite cells constitute a stem cell population within skeletal muscle. They are a small population of muscle-making stem cells found in skeletal muscle and they express a whole host of muscle-specific genes (e.g., desmin, Pax7, MyoD, Myf5, and M-cadherin). Satellite cells are responsible for muscle repair, but previous work has shown that there are at least two populations of satellite cells in skeletal muscle. One population rapidly contributes to muscle repair, whereas the other population is more stem cell-like and remains longer in an undifferentiated state in the recipient muscle (see Beauchamp JR , et al (1999) J Cell Biol 144:1113–1122; Kuang S , et al (2007) Cell 129:999–1010). Presently, it is not clear which population is more efficient in repairing continuously degenerating muscle.

MyoD is a gene that encodes a protein that binds to DNA and activates the expression of particular genes. It plays a vital role in regulating muscle differentiation, and belongs to a family of proteins known as myogenic regulatory factors or MRFs. All MRFs are bHLH or basic helix loop helix transcription factors, and they act sequentially in muscle differentiation. MRF family members include MyoD, Myf5, myogenin, and MRF4 (Myf6). MyoD is one of the earliest genes that indicates a cell has committed to become a muscle cell. MyoD is expressed in activated satellite cells, but not in quiescent (sleeping) satellite cells. Strangely, even though MyoD marks myoblast commitment, muscle development is not dramatically prevented in mouse mutants that lack the MyoD gene. However, this is likely to result from functional redundancy from Myf5. Nevertheless, the combination of MyoD and Myf5 is vital to the success of muscle production.

MyoD
MyoD

Therefore, Asakura and his crew decided to isolated muscle satellite cells from mice that lacked functional copies of the MyoD gene. Making such mice is labor intensive, but doable with mouse embryonic stem cell technology. When such MyoD- mice were made, Asakura and others isolated the satellite cells from these mice and characterized them. They discovered in their 2007 paper, that the satellite cells from the MyoD- mice were much more stem cell-like than satellite cells from MyoD+ mice. The MyoD- satellite cells grew better in culture, integrated into injured muscles better and survived better than their MyoD+ counterparts.

Why is this important? Because when it comes to treating degenerative muscle diseases like muscular dystrophy, finding the best cell is crucial. MyoD+ satellite cells have been used, but they are limited in the amount of muscle repair they provide. MyoD- cells might be a better option for treating a disease like muscular dystrophy.

Or for that matter, what about the heart? Finding the right cell to treat the heart after a heart attack has proven difficult. There are some things bone marrow cells do well, and other things they do not do well when it comes to regenerating the heart. Likewise, there are some things mesenchymal do well and other things they do not do well when placed in a damaged heart. Can MyoD- satellite cells do a better job than either of these types of stem cells?

That was the question addressed in the 2012 Nakamura paper that was published in PLoS One. Clinical trials that have treated heart attack patients with injections of MyoD+ satellite cells into the heart have shown that such treatments can improve heart function, but usually only transiently. They also prevent remodeling of the heart after a heart attack. However, two larger studies failed to produce significant improvements in heart function compared to the placebo, and patients who received the satellite cell transplants were also susceptible to very fast heart beats (tachycardia). Because of these downsides, the excitement for transplanting muscle satellite cells into the heart has waned.

So how did MyoD- satellite cells do? All the laboratory animals used in this experiment (BALB/c mice) were given heart attacks, and injected with either MyoD+ or MyoD- satellite cells. The hearts of animals injected with MyoD- satellite cells were compared with animals whose hearts were injected with MyoD+ satellite cells.

In culture, the MyoD- satellite cells grew better than the MyoD+ cells. When injected into the heart, the MyoD- cells integrated into the heart muscle and spread throughout the heart muscle much more robustly than the MyoD+ cells. The MyoD- cells were also much less susceptible to cell death and survived better than their MyoD+ counterparts.

(A) These panels show MI induced by left coronary artery ligation. Wild-type and MyoD−/− myoblasts were directly injected into the peri-infarct regions of LV. After 1 week, X-gal staining of whole heart indicated that more MyoD−/− myoblasts engrafted than wild-type myoblasts (arrows). Arrowheads indicate left coronary artery ligation points. X-gal staining of cross sections indicated that more MyoD−/− myoblasts than wild-type myoblasts engrafted in both injured and uninjured areas of the heart. Arrows indicate engrafted lacZ+ wild-type and MyoD−/− myoblasts. Scale bars = 1 mm.
(A) These panels show MI induced by left coronary artery ligation. Wild-type and MyoD−/− myoblasts were directly injected into the peri-infarct regions of LV. After 1 week, X-gal staining of whole heart indicated that more MyoD−/− myoblasts engrafted than wild-type myoblasts (arrows). Arrowheads indicate left coronary artery ligation points. X-gal staining of cross sections indicated that more MyoD−/− myoblasts than wild-type myoblasts engrafted in both injured and uninjured areas of the heart. Arrows indicate engrafted lacZ+ wild-type and MyoD−/− myoblasts. Scale bars = 1 mm.

Functionally speaking for the heart, animals that had received transplantations of MyoD- satellite cells had higher ejection fractions, small areas of dead heart tissue, lower end systolic and end diastolic volumes, and more normal echocardiograms. Even though MyoD- cells differentiated into skeletal muscle and not heart muscle (no surprise there), the MyoD- cells induced a very substantial quantity of new blood vessels to sprout in the scar area.

(A) Two weeks post-transplantation, immunofluorescence staining of heart cross sections showed that the progeny of lacZ+ wild-type and MyoD−/− myoblasts formed nestin+ multinucleated skeletal myotubes. Laminin (red) indicates cardiomyocytes and skeletal myotubes. Arrows indicate lacZ+ donor cell-derived nuclei in nestin+ myotubes. (B) Comparison of the relative numbers of lacZ+/nestin+ myotubes for wild-type and MyoD−/− myoblasts 2 weeks after injection (n = 3).
(A) Two weeks post-transplantation, immunofluorescence staining of heart cross sections showed that the progeny of lacZ+ wild-type and MyoD−/− myoblasts formed nestin+ multinucleated skeletal myotubes. Laminin (red) indicates cardiomyocytes and skeletal myotubes. Arrows indicate lacZ+ donor cell-derived nuclei in nestin+ myotubes. (B) Comparison of the relative numbers of lacZ+/nestin+ myotubes for wild-type and MyoD−/− myoblasts 2 weeks after injection (n = 3).

From these experiments, it seems that the MyoD- satellite cells are superior to the MyoD+ satellite cells for treating heart after a heart attack. These cells secrete a whole host of factors that aid the heart in healing and also structurally support the heart and prevent remodeling.

Might it be possible to use such cells in human trials? Asakura notes that engineering MyoD- satellite cells would be impractical for human clinical purposes, but it might be possible to downregulate MyoD expression with drugs (bromodeoxyuridine) or other reagents (RNAi or Id protein transformation).

This work shows that there is a better way to use muscle satellite cells for heart treatments. It simply requires you to remove MyoD function, and the cells will grow and spread throughout the heart better, and more robustly augment heart function and healing.

See NakamuraY, et al PLoS One 7(7) 2012:e41736.

Injected Wnt Protein Helps With Muscular Dystrophy


Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a genetic disease that affects one of every 3,500 newborn males. Because the DMD gene is located on the X chromosome, loss-of-function mutations that cause Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) tend to occur in males.

Muscular dystrophy or MS affects skeletal muscles and causes muscle weakness and muscle loss, and unfortunately, the disease often progresses to a state were the muscles are so weak and damaged that even the diaphragm, which is a voluntary muscle, becomes nonfunctional, and the patients dies from an inability to breath.

Recently, Michael Rudnicki, a MS researcher from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute in Canada, has led a research team that discovered that injections of a protein called “WNT7a” into muscles can increase the size and strength of muscles in MS mice.

Rudnicki is the director of the Regenerative Medicine Program at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI), Canada. The results of this work were published on the Nov. 26, 2012, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

For these experiments, Rudnicki collaborated with a San Diego-based biotechnology firm known as Fate Therapeutics. Fate Therapeutics specializes in developing pharmaceuticals that are based on stem cell biology, and Rudnicki is one of the founders of this company. Rudnicki hopes to begin a clinical trial of WNT7a for DMD in the near future.

In 2009, Rudnicki and co-workers showed that WNT7a protein is able to stimulate muscle repair by increasing the available supply of a population of muscle stem cells known as “muscle satellite cells.” Muscle satellite cells are located near muscle fibers but they are dormant until they are needed for muscle repair or muscle fiber regeneration. When the muscle is stressed or damaged, the satellite cells increase in number (proliferate) and mature (differentiate).

Muscle Satellite Cells

These newly published findings build on these earlier results. Once injected into the muscles of mice afflicted with DMD, the WNT7a-injected muscles showed significant increases in fiber strength and size. However, Rudnicki and others also found that WNT7a stimulated a two-fold increase in the number of satellite cells in the injected mouse muscles.

Rudnicki was worried that WNT7a was pushing satellite cells to differentiate prematurely, which was disconcerting because such premature differentiation would deplete the muscle satellite population. However, no evidence of premature differentiation was observed. Additionally, WNT7a-injected mouse muscles showed far less contraction-related injury, suggesting that WNT7a has a kind of protective effect on the muscle.

Even though these experiments were done in a mouse model of DMD, would WNT7a also work in a similar fashion in human muscles? To answer this questions, Rudnicki and his colleagues analyzed human muscle tissue from healthy male donors that had been treated with WNT7a. The results showed that the effects of this protein in skeletal muscle are the same in humans as in mice.

To summarize from their own paper: “Our experiments provide compelling evidence that WNT7a treatment counteracts the significant hallmarks of DMD, including muscle weakness, making WNT7a a promising candidate for development as an ameliorative treatment for DMD.”

The remarkable conclusion is that increasing muscle strength by injecting WNT7a into specific, vital muscle groups, such as those involved in breathing, should be considered as a therapeutic approach for this debilitating disease.