Cardiac Stem Cells Offer New Hope for Treatment of Heart Failure

Scientists from the United Kingdom have, for the first time, highlighted the natural regenerative abilities of a group of stem cells that live in our hearts. This particular study shows that these cells are responsible for repairing and regenerating muscle tissue that has been damaged by a heart attack. Such damage to the heart can lead to heart failure.

There is a robust debate as to the regenerative capacity of cardiac stem cells (CSCs) in the hearts a adult human beings. While many scientists are convinced that CSCs in the hearts of newborns have good regenerative ability, many remain unconvinced that adult CSCs can do similar things (see Zaruba, M.M., et al., Circulation 121, 1992–2000 and Jesty, S.A., et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 109, 13380–13385). Nevertheless, an earlier paper showed that when introduced into heart muscle after a heart attack, CSCs will regenerate the lost heart muscle and blood vessels lost in the infarct (see Beltrami, A.P., et al., Cell 114, 763–776). Resolving this disagreement requires a different type of experiment.

In this paper, Bernardo Nadal-Ginard and colleagues from the and his collaborators at the Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology Unit at the Liverpool John Moores University in Liverpool and his collaborators from Italy used a different way to affect the heart. When heart attacks are experimentally induced in the heart of rodents, the infarcts are large and they kill off large numbers of CSCs. Therefore, Nadal-Ginard and others induced severe diffuse damage of the heart muscle that also spared the CSCs. They gave the mice a large dose of a drug called isoproterenol, which acts as a “sympathomimetic.” This is confusing science talk that simply means that the drug speeds the heart rate to the point where the heart muscle exhausts itself and then starts to die off. This treatment, however, spares the CSCs (see Ellison, G.M., et al., J. Biol. Chem. 282, 11397–11409).

When the heart muscle was damaged, the CSCs differentiated into heart muscle cells and other heart-specific cells and repaired the damage in the heart. Also, the repairing cells were in the heart and were not the result of bone marrow stem cells that migrated to the bone marrow, thus putting to rest a controversy that has lasted for some years that CSCs are the result of bone marrow stem cells that migrate to the heart.

Elimination of CSCs prevents heart repair after heart damage. If, however, these heart-based stem cells are replaced after damage, the heart repairs itself and the heart recovers its function, anatomical integrity, and cellular structure.

In other experiments, removal of cardiac stem cells (CSCs) and re-injection after a heart attack shows that the CSCs can home in and repair the damaged heart.

c-kit CSCs repair heart

Since Nadal-Ginard showed that CSCs have a capacity to home to the damaged heart, less invasive treatments might be possible and that these treatments might even prevent heart failure after a heart attack in the future.

In a healthy heart, the quantity of CSCs is sufficient to repair heart muscle tissue. However, once the heart is damaged many of the CSCs are also damaged and cannot multiply or produce new muscle tissue. In these cases it could be possible to replace damaged CSCs with new ones that have been grown in the laboratory and administered intravenously.,

These new approaches involved maintaining or increasing the activity of CSCs in order to renew heart muscle and replace old, damaged cells. This new strategy will only require intravenous administration of CSCs and not require open heart procedures that require such a long time to recover.

These findings are very promising. The nest step is a clinical trial, which is due to start early 2014 and is aimed at assessing the safety and effectiveness of CSCs for preventing and treating heart failure in humans.

Treating the Heart with Mesenchymal Stem Cells: Timing and Dosage

Stephen Worthley from the Cardiovascular Investigation Unit at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in Adelaide, Australia and his colleagues have conducted a timely experiment with rodents that examines the effects of dosage and timing on stem cell treatments in the heart after a heart attack.

Mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow and other sources have been used to treat the heart of laboratory animals and humans after a heart attack. The optimal timing for such a treatment remains uncertain despite a respectable amount of work on this topic. Early intervention (one week) seems offer the best hope for preserving cardiac function, but the heart at this stage is highly inflamed and cell survival is poor. If treatment is delayed (2-3 weeks after the heart attack), the prospects for cell survival are better, but the heart at this time is undergoing remodeling and scar formation. Therefore, stem cell therapy at this time seems unlikely to work. Human clinical trials seem to suggest that mesenchymal stem cell treatment 2-3 weeks after a heart attack does no good (see Traverse JH, et al JAMA 2011;306:2110-9). The efficacy of the delivering mesenchymal stem cells to the heart at these different times has also not been compared.

If that degree of uncertainty is not enough, dosage is also a mystery. Rodent studies have used doses of one million cells, but studies have not established a linear relationship between efficacy and dose, and higher dosages seem to plateau in effectiveness (see Dixon JA, et al Circulation 2009;120(11 Suppl):S220-9). High doses might even be deleterious.

So what is the best time to administer after a heart attack, and how much should be administered? These are not trivial questions. Therefore a systematic study is required and laboratory animals such as rodents are required.

In this study, five groups of rats were given heart attacks by ligation of the left anterior descending artery, and two groups of rats received bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells immediately after the heart attack. The first group received a low dose (one million cells) and the second group received twice as many cells. The three other groups received their treatments one week after the heart attack. The third group received the low dose of stem cells received the low dose of cells (one million cells), and the fourth group received the higher dose (two million cells). The fifth group received no such cell treatment.

All mesenchymal stem cells were conditioned before injection by growing them under low oxygen conditions. Such pretreatments increase the viability of the stem cells in the heart.

The results were interesting to say the least. when assayed four weeks after the heart attacks, the hearts of the control animals showed a left ventricular function that tanked. The ejection fraction fell to 1/3rd the original ejection fraction (~60% to ~20%) and stayed there. The early high dose animals showed the lowest decrease in ejection fraction (-8%). The early low dose group showed a greater decrease in ejection fraction. Clearly dose made a difference in the early-treated animals with a higher dose working better than a lower dose.

In the later-treated animals, dose made little difference and the recovery was better than the early low dose animals. when ejection fraction alone was considered. However, when other measures were considered, the picture becomes much more complex. End diastolic and end systolic volumes were all least increased in the early high dose animals, but all four groups show significantly lower increases than the controls. The mass of the heart, however, was highest in the late high-dose animals as was ventricular wall thickness.

When the movement of the heart walls were considered, the early-treated animals showed the best repair of those territories of the heart near the site of injection, but the later-treated animals showed better repair at a distance from the site of injection. The same held for blood vessel density: higher density in the injected area in the early-treated animals, and higher blood vessel density in those areas further from the site of injection in the later-treated animals.

The size of the heart scar clearly favored the early injected animals, which the lower amount of scarring in the early high dose animals. Finally when migration of the mesenchymal stem cells throughout the heart was determined by using green fluorescent protein-labeled mesenchymal stem cells, the later injected mesenchymal stem cells were much more numerous at remote locations from the site of injection, and the early treated animals only had mesenchymal stem cells at the site of injection and close to it.

These results show that the later doses of mesenchymal stem cells improve the myocardium further from the site of the infarction and the early treatment improve the myocardium at the site of the infraction. Cell dosage is important in the early treatments favoring a higher dose, but not nearly as important in the later treatments, where, if anything, the data favors a lower dose of cells.

Mesenchymal stem cells affect the heart muscle by secreting growth factors and other molecules that aids and abets healing and decreases inflammation. However, research on these cells pretty clearly shows that they modulate their secretions under different environmental conditions (see for example, Thangarajah H et al Stem Cells 2009;27:266-74). Therefore, the cells almost certainly secrete different molecules under these conditions.

In order to confirm these results, similar experiments in larger animals are warranted, since the rodent heart is a relatively poor model for the human heart as it beats much faster than human hearts.

See James Richardson, et al Journal of Cardiac Failure 2013;19(5):342-53.