Stem Cell-Extracted Proteins Promote Bone Regrowth


Scientists from the Gladstone Institutes have found a new technique to regrow bone by using the protein signals produced by stem cells. This new technology could potentially help treat victims who have experienced major trauma to a limb, such as soldiers wounded in combat or casualties of a natural disaster. This new protocol improves older therapies by providing a sustainable source for fresh tissue that also reduces the risk of tumor formation that can arise with stem cell transplants.

This study was published in a journal called Scientific Reports, and it is the first study that successfully extracted bone-producing growth factors from stem cells and showed that these proteins are sufficient to create new bone. This stem cell-based approach was as effective as the current standard treatment in terms of the amount of bone created.

“This proof-of-principle work establishes a novel bone formation therapy that exploits the regenerative potential of stem cells,” says senior author Todd McDevitt, PhD, a senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes. “With this technique, we can produce new tissue that is completely stem cell-derived and that performs similarly with the gold standard in the field.”

Rather than using stem cells, the Gladstone scientists extracted the proteins that the stem cells secrete, such as a protein called bone morphogenetic protein (BMP). By extracting these proteins, they hoped to harness their regenerative power. McDevitt and his colleagues treated stem cells with a chemical that helped drove them to begin to differentiate into early bone cells. Then they analyzed the secreted factors produced by these cells that signal to other cells to regenerate new tissue. Afterwards, they took these isolated proteins and injected then into mouse muscle tissue to facilitate new bone growth.

Currently, laboratory technicians grind up old bones and extract the available proteins and growth factors that can induce the growth of new bone. Unfortunately, this approach relies on bones taken from cadavers, which are highly variable when it comes to the quality of the available tissue and how much of the necessary signals they still produce. Also, cadaver tissue is not always available.

“These limitations motivate the need for more consistent and reproducible source material for tissue regeneration,” says Dr. McDevitt, who conducted the research while he was a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “As a renewable resource that is both scalable and consistent in manufacturing, pluripotent stem cells are an ideal solution.”

Stem Cells Aid Muscle Strengthing and Repair After Resistance Exercise


University of Illinois professor of Kinesiology and Community Health, Marni Boppart and her colleagues have published experiments that demonstrate that mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) rejuvenate skeletal muscle after resistance exercise. These new findings, which were published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, might be the impetus for new medical interventions to combat age-related declines in muscle structure and function.

Marni Boppart
Marni Boppart

Injecting MSCs into mouse leg muscles before several bouts of exercise that mimic resistance training in humans and result in mild muscle damage caused increases in the rate of muscle repair and enhanced the growth and strength of those muscles in exercising mice.

“We have an interest in understanding how muscle responds to exercise, and which cellular components contribute to the increase in repair and growth with exercise,” Boppart said. “But the primary goal of our lab really is to have some understanding of how we can rejuvenate the aged muscle to prevent the physical disability that occurs with age, and to increase quality of life in general as well.”

MSCs are found throughout the body, but several studies have established that MSCs from different tissue sources have distinct biological properties. Typically, MSCs can readily differentiate into bone, fat, and cartilage cells, but coaxing MSCs to form skeletal muscle has proven to be very difficult. MSCs usually form part of the stroma, which is the connective tissue that supports organs and other tissues.

Because of their inability to readily differentiate into skeletal muscle, MSCs probably potentiate muscle repair by “paracrine” mechanisms. Paracrine mechanisms refer to molecules secreted by cells that induce responses in nearby cells. Not surprisingly, MSCs excrete a wide variety of growth factors, cytokines, and other molecules that, according to this new study, stimulate the growth of muscle precursor cells, otherwise known as “satellite cells.” The growth of satellite cells expands muscle tissue and contributes to repair following muscle injury. Once activated, satellite cells fuse with damaged muscle fibers and form new fibers to reconstruct the muscle and enhance strength and restore muscle function.

“Satellite cells are a primary target for the rejuvenation of aged muscle, since activation becomes increasingly impaired and recovery from injury is delayed over the lifespan,” Boppart said. “MSC transplantation may provide a viable solution to reawaken the aged satellite cell.”

Unfortunately, satellite cells, even though they can be isolated from muscle biopsies and grown in culture, will probably not be used therapeutically to enhance repair or strength in young or aged muscle “because they cause an immune response and rejection within the tissue,” Boppart said. But MSCs are “immunoprivileged,” which simply means that they can be transplanted from one individual to another without sparking an immune response.

“Skeletal muscle is a very complex organ that is highly innervated and vascularized, and unfortunately all of these different tissues become dysfunctional with age,” Boppart said. “Therefore, development of an intervention that can heal multiple tissues is ideally required to reverse age-related declines in muscle mass and function. MSCs, because of their ability to repair a variety of different tissue types, are perfectly suited for this task.”

Nanotubules Link Damaged Heart Cells With Mesenchymal Stem Cells to Both of Their Benefit


Mesenchymal stem cells are found throughout the body in bone marrow, fat, tendons, muscle, skin, umbilical cord, and many other tissues. These cells have the capacity to readily differentiate into bone, fat, and cartilage, and can also form smooth muscles under particular conditions.

Several animal studies and clinical trials have demonstrated that mesenchymal stem cells can help heal the heart after a heart attack. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) tend to help the heart by secreting a variety of particular molecules that stimulate heart muscle survival, proliferation, and healing.

Given these mechanisms of healing, is there a better way to get these healing molecules to the heart muscle cells?

A research group from INSERM in Creteil, France has examined the use of tunneling nanotubes to connect MSCs with heart muscle cells. These experiments have revealed something remarkable about MSCs.

Florence Figeac and her colleagues in the laboratory of Ann-Marie Rodriguez used a culture system that grew fat-derived MSCs and with mouse heart muscle cells. They induced damage in the heart muscle cells and then used tunneling nanotubes to connect the fat-based MSCs.

They discovered two things. First of all, the MSCs secreted a variety of healing molecules regardless of their culture situation. However, when the MSCs were co-cultured with damaged heart muscle cells with tunneling nanotubes, the secretion of healing molecules increased. The tunneling nanotubes somehow passed signals from the damaged heart muscle cells to the MSCs and these signals jacked up secretion of healing molecules by the MSCs.

The authors referred to this as “crosstalk” between the fat-derived MSCs and heart muscle cells through the tunneling nanotubes and it altered the secretion of heart protective soluble factors (e.g., VEGF, HGF, SDF-1α, and MCP-3). The increased secretion of these molecules also maximized the ability of these stem cells to promote the growth and formation of new blood vessels and recruit bone marrow stem cells.

After these experiments in cell culture, Figeac and her colleagues used these cells in a living animal. They discovered that the fat-based MSCs did a better job at healing the heart if they were previously co-cultured with heart muscle cells.

Exposure of the MSCs to damaged heart muscle cells jacked up the expression of healing molecules, and therefore, these previous exposures made these MSCs better at healing hearts in comparison to naive MSCs that were not previously exposed to damaged heart muscle.

Thus, these experiments show that crosstalk between MSCs and heart muscle cells, mediated by nanotubes, can optimize heart-based stem cells therapies.

Stem Cells Decrease Brain Inflammation and Increase Cognitive Ability After Traumatic Brain Injury


A study at the Texas Health Science Center has shown that stem cell treatments that quash inflammation soon after traumatic brain injury (TBI) might also offer lasting cognitive gains.

TBI sometimes causes severe brain damage, and it can also lead to recurrent inflammation of the brain.  This ongoing inflammation can extend the damage to the brain.  Only a few drugs help (anti-inflammatory drugs for example).  Up to half of patients with serious TBI need surgery, but some stem cells like a sub group of mesenchymal stem cells called multipotent adult progenitor cells (MAPCs) can reduce short-term inflammation, and induce functional improvement in mice with TBI.  Unfortunately, few groups have gauged the long-term effects of MAPCs on TBI.

Differentiation of MultiStem® cells into alkaline-phosphatase-positive osteoblasts (blue) and lipid-accumulating adipocytes (red).
Differentiation of MultiStem® cells into alkaline-phosphatase-positive osteoblasts (blue) and lipid-accumulating adipocytes (red).

In an article that appeared in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine, a research team led by the Director of the Children’s Program in Regenerative Medicine, Charles Cox, reported the use of human MAPCs in mice that had suffered TBI.

Charles Cox, Jr., MD
Charles Cox, Jr., MD

In this study, Cox and his colleagues infused MAPCs into the bloodstream of two groups of mice 2, and 24 hours after suffering a TBI.  The first group of mice received two million cells per kilogram, and mice in the other group received an MAPC dose five times stronger.

Four months after MAPC administration, those mice that had received the stronger dose continued to experience less brain inflammation and better cognition.  Spatial learning was increased and motor deficits had decreased.

According to Cox, the intravenously administered MAPCs did not cross the blood/brain barrier.  Since immune cells can cross the blood/brain barrier for a short period of time after a TBI and cause autoimmunity, this result shows that the MAPCs are quelling inflammation through “paracrine” mechanisms (paracrine means that molecules are secreted by the cells and these secreted molecules elicit various responses from nearby cells). Cox made this clear: “We spent 18 months looking for them in the brain. There was little to no engraftment there.”

Rather than entering the brain, the MAPCs “set up shop in the spleen, a giant reservoir of T and B cells. The MAPCs change the spleen’s output to anti-inflammatory cells and cytokines, which communicate with immune cells in the brain—microglia—and change their response to injury from hyper-to-anti- inflammatory. The cells alter the innate immune response to injury. We have shown this in a sequence of papers.”

Microglia
Microglia

University of Cambridge neurologist, Stefano Pluchino, has worked with immune regulatory stem cells.  Pluchino said that Cox’s study shows a “good dose response” on disability and behavior “after hyperacute, or acute, intravenous injection of MAPCs.”  However, Pluchino noted that the description of the effects of MAPCs on microglia (white blood cells in the brain that gobble up foreign matter and cell debris) is “speculative.”  Pluchino continued: “It is not clear whether these counts have been done on the injured brain hemisphere, and whether MAPC effects were observable on the unaffected hemisphere.  The distribution and half-life of these MAPCs is not clear” and has never been demonstrated convincingly in Athersys papers (side note: Athersys is the company that isolates and grows the human MAPCs). “It is also not clear if effects in the Cox study were a ‘false positive,’ secondary to a paradoxical immune suppression the xenograft modulates.” That is, a false positive could occur because human cells in animal bodies rouse immune reactions. “It is not clear where in the body these MAPCs would work, either out or into the injured brain.” Additionally the mechanism by which these cells act does not seem to be clear, according to Pluchino.

But, Pluchino added: “Athersys is already in clinic with MAPCs in graft vs. host disease, myocardial infarction, stroke, progressing towards a phase I/II clinical trial in multiple sclerosis, and completing the pre-clinical work in traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries. Everything looks great. The company is solid. The data is convincing in terms of behavioral and pathological analyses. But the points I have raised are far from clarified.”

Cox admitted that Pluchino’s points are valid.  He pointed out that human cells were used in rodents, since the FDA wants pre-clinical studies in laboratory animals in order to first evaluate the safety and efficacy of the exact cells to be used in a proposed therapy before they head to the clinic. “As we are not seeking engraftment of these cells, and would not plan to immunosuppress a trauma patient, we have not pursued animal models that use immunosuppression. Our study was designed with translationally relevant end-points, recognizing the limitations of not having a final mechanism of action determined. The growing consensus is there are many mechanism(s) of action in cell therapies.”

Cox also agreed that the suggested effects of MAPCs on microglia, “is not truly a proof of mechanism.”  However, Cox and his co-workers have developed a protocol that can potentially more accurately quantify microglia in mice. “We ultimately plan more mechanistic studies to define endogenous microglia versus infiltrating microglia and the effects of various cell therapies. “

Additionally, Cox also said that: “We have published work showing the majority of acutely infused MSCs and MAPCs are lodged in the lung after intravenous delivery. This was an acute study in non-injured animals, but others have shown similar data.” In another study, Cox’s research group showed that the cells cluster in the spleen, which corroborates work by other research groups that have used umbilical cord cells to treat stroke.

Finally, Cox disagrees that the suppression of immune cell function in animals by human cells is appropriately characterized as “a false positive.”  Cox explained that the infused cells induce a “modulation of the innate immune response, and typically, the immune rejection of a transplant is associated with immune activation, not suppression. So it well may be a ‘true positive.’”

In order for MAPCs to make to the clinical trial stage, Cox will need to investigate the mechanisms by which MAPCs suppress inflammation and if their purported effects on microglia in the central nervous system are real.  He will also need to show that these cells work in other types of laboratory animals beside mice.  Rats will probably be next, and after that, my guess is that the FDA would allow Athersys to apply for a New Drug Application.

Encapsulation of Cardiac Stem Cells and Their Effect on the Heart


Earlier I blogged about an experiment that encapsulated mesenchymal stem cells into alginate hydrogels and implanted them into the hearts of rodents after a heart attack. The encapsulated mesenchymal stem cells showed much better retention in the heart and survival and elicited better healing and recovery of cardiac function than their non-encapsulated counterparts.

This idea seems to be catching on because another paper reports doing the same thing with cardiac stem cells extracted from heart biopsies. Audrey Mayfield and colleagues in the laboratory of Darryl Davis at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and in collaboration with Duncan Steward and his colleagues from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute used cardiac stem cells extracted from human patients that were encased in agarose hydrogels to treat mice that had suffered heart attacks. These experiments were reported in the journal Biomaterials (2013).

Cardiac stem cells (CSCs) were extracted from human patients who were already undergoing open heart procedures. Small biopsies were taken from the “atrial appendages” and cultured in cardiac explants medium for seven days.

atrial appendage

Migrating cells in the culture were harvested and encased in low melt agarose supplemented with human fibrinogen. To form a proper hydrogel, the cells/agarose mixture was added drop-wise to dimethylpolysiloxane (say that fast five times) and filtered. Filtration guaranteed that only small spheres (100 microns) were left. All the larger spheres were not used.

Those CSCs that were not encased in hydrogels were used for gene profiling studies. These studies showed that cultured CSCs expressed a series of cell adhesion molecules known as “integrins.” Integrins are 2-part proteins that are embedded in the cell membrane and consist of an “alpha” and “beta” subunit. Integrin subunits, however, come in many forms, and there are multiple alpha subunits and multiple beta subunits.

integrin-actin2

This mixing and matching of integrin subunits allows integrins to bind many different types of substrates. Consequently it is possible to know what kinds of molecules these cells will stick to based on the types of integrins they express. The gene prolifing experiments showed that CSC expressed integrin alpha-5 and the beta 1 and 3 subunits, which shows that CSC can adhere to fibronectin and fibrinogen.

fibronectin

fibrinogen-cleave

When encapsulated CSCs were supplemented with fibrinogen and fibronectin, CSCs showed better survival than their unencapsulated counterparts, and grew just as fast ans unencapsulated CSCs. Other experiments showed that the encapsulated CSCs made just as many healing molecules as the unencapsulated CSCs, and were able to attract circulating angiogenic (blood vessel making) cells. Also, the culture medium of the encapsulated cells was also just as potent as culture medium from suspended CSCs.

With these laboratory successes, encapsulated CSCs were used to treat non-obese diabetic mice with dysfunctional immune systems that had suffered a heart attack. The CSCs were injected into the heart, and some mice received encapsulated CSCs, other non-encapsulated CSCs, and others only buffer.

The encapsulated CSCs showed better retention in the heart; 2.5 times as many encapsulated CSCs were retained in the heart in comparison to the non-encapsulated CSCs. Also, the ejection fraction of the hearts that received the encapsulated CSCs increased from about 35% to almost 50%. Those hearts that had received the non-encapsulated CSCs showed an ejection fraction that increased from around 33% to about 39-40%. Those mice that had received buffer only showed deterioration of heart function (ejection fraction decreased from 36% to 28%). Also, the heart scar was much smaller in the hearts that had received encapsulated CSCs. Less than 10% of the heart tissue was scarred in those mice that received encapsulated CSCs, but 16% of the heart was scarred in the mice that received free CSCs. Those mice that received buffer had 20% of their hearts scarred.

Finally, did encapsulated CSCs engraft into the heart muscle? CSCs have been shown to differentiate into heart-specific tissues such as heart muscle, blood vessels, and heart connective tissue. Encapsulation might prevent CSCs from differentiating into heart-specific cell types and connecting to other heart tissues and integrating into the existing tissues. However, at this point, w have a problem with this paper. The text states that “encapsulated CSCs provided a two-fold increase in the number of engrafted human CSCs as compared transplant of non-encapsulated CSCs.” The problem is that the bar graft shown in the paper shows that the non-encapsulated CSCs have twice the engraftment of the capsulated CSCs. I think the reviewers might have missed this one. Nevertheless, the other data seem to show that encapsulation did not affect engraftment of the CSCs.

The conclusion of this paper is that “CSC capsulation provides an easy, fast and non-toxic way to treat the cells prior to injection through a clinically acceptable process.”

Hopefully large-animal tests will come next. If these are successful, then maybe human trials should be on the menu.

Regenerating Injured Kidneys with Exosomes from Human Umbilical Cord Mesenchymal Stem Cells


Zhou Y, Xu H, Xu W, Wang B, Wu H, Tao Y, Zhang B, Wang M, Mao F, Yan Y, Gao S, Gu H, Zhu W, Qian H: Exosomes released by human umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells protect against cisplatin-induced renal oxidative stress and apoptosis in vivo and in vitro. Stem Cell Res Ther 2013, 4:34.

Ying Zhou and colleagues from Jiangsi University have provided helpful insights into how adult stem cell populations – in particular, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) isolated from human umbilical cord (hucMSCs) – are able to regulate tissue repair and regeneration. Adult stem cells, including MSCs from different sources, confer regenerative effects in animal models of disease and tissue injury. Many of these cells are also in phase I and II trials for limb ischemia, congestive heart failure, and acute myocardial infarction (Syed BA, Evans JB. Nat Rev Drug Discov 2013, 12:185–186).

Despite the documented healing capabilities of MSCs, in many cases, even though the implanted stem cells produce genuine, reproducible therapeutic effects, the presence of the transplanted stem cells in the regenerating tissue is not observed. These observations suggest that the predominant therapeutic effect of stem cells is conferred through the release of therapeutic factors. In fact, conditioned media from adult stem cell populations are able to improve ischemic damage to kidney and heart, which confirms the presence of factors released by stem cells in mediating tissue regeneration after injury (van Koppen A, et al., PLoS One 2012, 7:e38746; Timmers L, et al., Stem Cell Res 2007, 1:129–137). Additionally, the secretion of factors such as interleukin-10 (IL-10), indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO), interleukin-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1Ra), transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-β1), prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), and tumor necrosis factor-alpha-stimulated gene/protein 6 (TSG-6) has been implicated in conferring the anti-inflammatory effects of stem cells (Pittenger M: Cell Stem Cell 2009, 5:8–10). These observations cohere with the positive clinical effects of MSCs in treating Crohn’s disease and graft-versus-host disease (Caplan AI, Correa D. Cell Stem Cell 2011, 9:11–15).

Another stem cell population called muscle-derived stem/progenitor cells, which are related to MSCs, can also extend the life span of mice that have the equivalent of an aging disease called progeria. These muscle-derived stem/progenitor cells work through a paracrine mechanism (i.e. the release of locally acting substances from cells; see Lavasani M, et al., Nat Commun 2012, 3:608). However, it is unclear what factors released by functional stem cells are important for facilitating tissue regeneration after injury, disease, or aging and the precise mechanism through which these factors exert their effects. Recently, several groups have demonstrated the potent therapeutic activity of small vesicles called exosomes that are released by stem cells (Gatti S, et al., Nephrol Dial Transplant 2011, 26:1474–1483; Bruno S, et al., PLoS One 2012, 7:e33115; Lai RC, et al., Regen Med 2013, 8:197–209; Lee C, et al., Circulation 2012, 126:2601–2611; Li T, et al., Stem Cells Dev 2013, 22:845–854). Exosomes are a type of membrane vesicle with a diameter of 30 to 100 nm released by most cell types, including stem cells. They are formed by the inverse budding of the multivesicular bodies and are released from cells upon fusion of multivesicular bodies with the cell membrane (Stoorvogel W, et al., Traffic 2002, 3:321–330).

Exosomes are distinct from larger vesicles, termed ectosomes, which are released by shedding from the cell membrane. The protein content of exosomes depends on the cells that release them, but they tend to be enriched in certain molecules, including adhesion molecules, membrane trafficking molecules, cytoskeleton molecules, heat-shock proteins, cytoplasmic enzymes, and signal transduction proteins. Importantly, exosomes also contain functional mRNA and microRNA molecules. The role of exosomes in vivo is hypothesized to be for cell-to-cell communication, transferring proteins and RNAs between cells both locally and at a distance.

To examine the regenerative effects of MSCs derived from human umbilical cord, Zhou and colleagues used a rat model of acute kidney toxicity induced by treatment with the anti-cancer drug cisplatin. After treatment with cisplatin, rats show increases in blood urea nitrogen and creatinine levels (a sign of kidney dysfunction) and increases in apoptosis, necrosis, and oxidative stress in the kidney. If exosomes purified from hucMSCs, termed hucMSC-ex are injected underneath the renal capsule into the kidney, these indices of acute kidney injury decrease. In cell culture, huc-MSC-exs promote proliferation of rat renal tubular epithelial cells in culture. These results suggest that hucMSC-exs can reduce oxidative stress and programmed cell death, and promote proliferation. What is not clear is how these exosomes pull this off. Zhou and colleagues provide evidence that hucMSC-ex can reduce levels of the pro-death protein Bax and increase the pro-survival Bcl-2 protein levels in the kidney to increase cell survival and stimulate Erk1/2 to increase cell proliferation.

Another research group has reported roles for miRNAs and antioxidant proteins contained in stem cell-derived exosomes for repair of damaged renal and cardiac tissue (Cantaluppi V, et al., Kidney Int 2012, 82:412–427). In addition, MSC exosome-mediated delivery of glycolytic enzymes (the pathway that degrades sugar) to complement the ATP deficit in ischemic tissues was recently reported to play an important role in repairing the ischemic heart (Lai RC, et al., Stem Cell Res 2010, 4:214–222). Clearly, stem cell exosomes contain many factors, including proteins and microRNAs that can contribute to improving the pathology of damaged tissues.

The significance of the results of Zhou and colleagues and others is that stem cells may not need to be used clinically to treat diseased or injured tissue directly. Instead, exosomes released from the stem cells, which can be rapidly isolated by centrifugation, could be administered easily without the safety concerns of aberrant stem cell differentiation, transformation, or recognition by the immune system. Also, given that human umbilical cord exosomes are therapeutic in a rat model of acute kidney injury, it is likely that stem cell exosomes from a donor (allogeneic exosomes) would be effective in clinical studies without side effects.

These are fabulously interesting results, but Zhou and colleagues have also succeeded in raising several important questions. For example: What are the key pathways targeted by stem cell exosomes to regenerate injured renal and cardiac tissue? Are other tissues as susceptible to the therapeutic effects of stem cell exosomes? Do all stem cells release similar therapeutic vesicles, or do certain stem cells release vesicles targeting only specific tissue and regulate tissue-specific pathways? How can the therapeutic activity of stem cell exosomes be increased? What is the best source of therapeutic stem cell exosomes?

Despite these important remaining questions, the demonstration that hucMSCderived exosomes block oxidative stress, prevent cell death, and increase cell proliferation in the kidney makes stem cell-derived exosomes an attractive therapeutic alternative to stem cell transplantation.

See Dorronsoro and Robbins: Regenerating the injured kidney with human umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cell-derived exosomes. Stem Cell Research & Therapy 2013 4:39.

Keeping Implanted Stem Cells in the Heart


Globally, thousands of heart patients have been treated with stem cells from bone marrow and other sources. While many of these patients have been helped by these treatments, the results have been inconsistent, and most patients only show a modest improvement in heart function.

The reason for these sometimes underwhelming results seems to result from the fact that implanted stem cells either die soon after they are delivered to the heart or washed out. Since the heart is a pump, it is constantly contracting and having fluid (blood) wash through it. Therefore, it is one of the last places in the body we should expect implanted stem cells to stay put.

To that end, cardiology researchers a Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia have packaged stem cells into small capsules made of alginate (a molecule from seaweed) to keep them in the heart once they are implanted there.

alginate_formel

W. Robert Taylor, professor of medicine and director of the cardiology division at Emory University School of Medicine, and his group encapsulated mesenchymal stem cells in alginate and used them to male a “patch” that was applied to the hearts of rats after a heart attack. Taylor’s group compared the recovery of these animals to those rats that had suffered heart attacks, but were treated with non-encapsulated cells, or no cells at all. The rats treated with encapsulated cells not only showed a more robust recovery, but they had larger numbers of stem cells in their hearts and showed better survival.

Histological appearance of encapsulated human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs). Light microscopic appearance of encapsulated hMSCs at the time of implantation with approximately 200 cells within each 250 μm capsule. (Scale bar=100 μm)
Histological appearance of encapsulated human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs). Light microscopic appearance of encapsulated hMSCs at the time of implantation with approximately 200 cells within each 250 μm capsule. (Scale bar=100 μm)

Of this work, Taylor said, “This approach appears to be an effective way to increase cell retention and survival in the context of cardiac cell therapy. It may be a strategy applicable to many cell types for regenerative therapy in cardiovascular medicine.

Readers of this blog might remember that I have detailed before the inhospitable environment inside the heart after a heart attack. Oxygen levels are low because blood vessels have died, and roving white blood cells are gobbling up cell debris and releasing toxic molecules while they do it. Also the dying cells have released a toxic cocktail of molecules that make the infarcted area very inhospitable. Injecting stem cells into this region is an invitation for more cells to die. Previous experiments have shown that preconditioning stem cells either by genetically engineering them to withstand high stress levels of by growing them in high-stress conditions prior to implantation can increase their survival in the heart.

Taylor also pointed out that the mechanical forces of the contracting heart can squeeze them and displace them from the heart, much like pinching a watermelon seed between your fingers causes it to slip out. “These cells are social creatures and like to be together,” said Taylor. “From some studies of cell therapy after myocardial infarction, one can estimate that more than 90 percent of the cells are lost in the first hour. With numbers like that, it’s easy to make the case that retention is the first place to look to boost effectiveness.”

Encapsulation keeps the mesenchymal stem cells together in the heart and “keeps them happy.” Encapsulation, however, does not completely cut off the cells from their environment. They can still sense the cardiac milieu and release growth factors and cytokines while they are protected from marauding white blood cells and antibodies that might damage, destroy, or displace them.

Alginate already has an impressive medical pedigree as a biomaterial. It is completely non-toxic, and chefs use it to make edible molds to encase other types of tasty morsels. Dentists use alginate to take impressions of a patient’s teeth and it is also used a component of wound dressings. One of Taylor’s co-authors, an Emory University colleague named Collin Weber has used alginate to encapsulate insulin-producing islet-cells that are being tested in clinical trials with diabetics.

Encasing cells in alginate prevents them from replacing dead cells, but mesenchymal stem cells tend to do the majority of their healing by means of “paracrine” mechanisms; that is to say, mesenchymal stem cells tend to secrete growth factors, cytokines and other healing molecules rather than differentiating into heart cells. Mesenchymal stem cells can be isolated from bone marrow or fat.

One month after suffering from a heart attack, those rats that had suffered a heart attack saw their ejection fractions (a measure of how much volume the heart pumps out with every beat) fell from an average of 72% to 34%. However, rats treated with encapsulated mesenchymal stem cells saw an increase in their ejection fractions from 34% to 56%. Those treated with unencapsulated mesenchymal stem cells saw their ejection fractions rise to 39%.

Detailed cardiac functional analysis by cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (CMR) and transthoracic echocardiography (TTE) showed improvement in animals treated with encapsulated human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs). A, Representative short axis CMR at end systole of animals treated with encapsulated hMSCs or controls. Myocardial thinning and chamber dilation, delineated by traced endocardium (red) and epicardium (green) was reduced in the encapsulated hMSC group (arrow). Quantification of end systolic volume (B) and ejection fraction (C) by CMR at day 28 showed improved contractile function in the encapsulated hMSC treated group (n=4 per group). D, TTE comparison of untreated animals (n=9) to animals treated with encapsulated hMSCs (n=7) or hMSCs delivered by direct injection (n=7) into the infarcted myocardium showed greater benefit of treatment with encapsulated cells. Data represent mean±SEM. *P<0.05 by Dunnett's test of multiple comparisons; #P<0.05 by analysis of variance (ANOVA). LVESV indicates left ventricular end systolic volume; MI, myocardial infarction.
Detailed cardiac functional analysis by cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (CMR) and transthoracic echocardiography (TTE) showed improvement in animals treated with encapsulated human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs). A, Representative short axis CMR at end systole of animals treated with encapsulated hMSCs or controls. Myocardial thinning and chamber dilation, delineated by traced endocardium (red) and epicardium (green) was reduced in the encapsulated hMSC group (arrow). Quantification of end systolic volume (B) and ejection fraction (C) by CMR at day 28 showed improved contractile function in the encapsulated hMSC treated group (n=4 per group). D, TTE comparison of untreated animals (n=9) to animals treated with encapsulated hMSCs (n=7) or hMSCs delivered by direct injection (n=7) into the infarcted myocardium showed greater benefit of treatment with encapsulated cells. Data represent mean±SEM. *P

One of the main effects of implanted stem cells is the promotion of the growth of new blood vessels.  In capsule-treated rats, the damaged area of the heart had a blood vessel density that was several times that of the hearts of control animals.  Also, the area of cell death was much lower in the hearts treated with encapsulated MSCs.

Treatment of hearts with encapsulated human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSC) post myocardial infarction reduced myocardial scarring at 28 days. A, Representative sections of infarcted hearts stained with Masson's Trichrome and treated with encapsulated hMSCs or control gels. Blue indicates fibrotic scar. ×15, scale bar=1 mm. B, Animals treated with encapsulated hMSCs showed reduced scar area (7±1%; n=6) at 28 days compared to control treated hearts (MI: 12±1%, n=8; MI+Gel: 14±2%, n=7; MI+Gel+hMSC: 14±1%, n=7; MI+Gel+Empty Caps: 12±2%, n=5). Data represent mean±SEM. *P<0.05. MI indicates myocardial infarction.
Treatment of hearts with encapsulated human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSC) post myocardial infarction reduced myocardial scarring at 28 days. A, Representative sections of infarcted hearts stained with Masson’s Trichrome and treated with encapsulated hMSCs or control gels. Blue indicates fibrotic scar. ×15, scale bar=1 mm. B, Animals treated with encapsulated hMSCs showed reduced scar area (7±1%; n=6) at 28 days compared to control treated hearts (MI: 12±1%, n=8; MI+Gel: 14±2%, n=7; MI+Gel+hMSC: 14±1%, n=7; MI+Gel+Empty Caps: 12±2%, n=5). Data represent mean±SEM. *P

The encapsulated stem cells seem to stay in the heart for just over ten days, which is the time is takes for the alginate hydrogels to break down.  Taylor said that he and his lab would like to test several different materials to determine how long these capsules remain bound to the patch.

The goal is to use a patient’ own stem cells as a source for stem cell therapy.  Whatever the source of stem cells, a patient’s own stem cells must be grown outside the body for several days in a stem cell laboratory, much like Emory Personalized Immunotherapy Center in order to have enough material for a therapeutic effect.