Human Amniotic Epithelial Cells – Remarkable Possibilities for a Small Price

My apologies to my readers for my inactivity. Many deadlines make for less blogging. Nevertheless, I hope to get back to a more regular blogging schedule once things quiet down a bit.

Today’s entry is about a fascinating group of cells found in the extraembryonic membranes of the fetus known as the amnion. The amniotic sac is a thin, transparent pair of membranes that is actually rather tough. This sac holds the fetus until shortly before birth. In inner membrane of the amnion sac contains the amniotic fluid and fetus and the outer membrane, the chorion, surrounds the amnion and is part of the placenta.

The amniotic membrane contains a remarkable cell type known as amniotic epithelial cells or hAECs (the “h” is for human). Upon isolation after birth, the amnion membrane and manually separated from the chorion membrane and washed in a saline (salt) solution in order to remove all the blood. Then the epithelial cells are liberated from the basement membrane upon which they sit by a product called TrypZean. TrypZean is a recombinant trypsin, which is very clean and devoid of animal products. Trypsin is one of the enzymes in your digestive system that degrades proteins. By expressing the human trypsin gene in bacteria and purifying the protein, Sigma-Aldrich corporation can sell it for a profit to scientists for various procedures.

A single amnion membrane can yield in the vicinity of 120 million viable hAECs, which can be maintained in serum-free culture conditions. After being grown for some time, hAECs will have normal chromosome compositions and will also maintain chromosomes that have nice, long ends (telomeres). This indicates that the cells are healthy and dying while they grow in culture (see Murphy et al., Current Protocols in Stem Cell Biology, 2010; Chapter 1: Unit 1E.6). .

In culture,. hAECs do not grow like weeds. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) tend to grow better than their hAEC brethren, but hAECs possess a remarkable ability to differentiate into a wide variety of different cell types. Sivakami Ilancheran in the laboratory of Martin Pera at the University of Monash in Clayton, Australia showed that hAECs were able to differentiate into heart muscle, skeletal muscle, bone, fat cells, pancreatic cells, liver, and at least two kinds of nerve cells. Also, when injected into mice, hAECs never formed tumors (Ilancheran et al., Biology of Reproduction 77 (2007): 577-88). Murphy and others have also shown that hAECs can be isolated after collection and stored for clinical therapies.

Given that hAECs are accessible, what are they good for? When it comes to regenerative medicine, preclinical studies with hAECs have produced very solid results that may pave the way for other studies.

HAECs can differentiate into lung cells and this feature makes them an attractive candidate for lung diseases. Lung diseases cause inflammation of the lung and scarring that decreases overall lung capacity. Cystic fibrosis, acute respiratory distress syndrome, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pulmonary fibrosis, pulmonary edema, and pulmonary hypertension are all lung diseases that could potentially be treated with hAECs.

In animal models of lung disease, particular chemicals are given to the animal that damage the lung. The wounded lung tissue initiates inflammation that brings white blood cells into the lung that augment the lung damage, which results in lung scarring. If hAECs are given to mice whose lungs have been damaged by the anti-cancer drug bleomycin, the signs of inflammation and the genes normally expressed during inflammation fade away. There is also less scarring in the lungs and the functional recovery of these animals is significantly better than those animals that do not receive hAECs (Murphy et al., Cell Transplantation 2011 20(6): 909-23). In fact, hAECs can differentiate into lung cells and integrate into lung tissue. The significance of this is not lost on respiratory specialists who treat patients with cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis patients lack a functional copy of a ion transport protein and poor ion transport cause the production of thick, sticky mucous that clogs up the lung pathways and causes patients to suffocate to death. However, hAECs can differentiate into lung cells that express this ion transporter. Therefore, hAECs could be a potential treatment for cystic fibrosis. Clearly hAECs have great potential for tissue engineering applications with lung disease.

Lungs are not the only organ that hAECs can help heal. These cells can also differentiate into pancreatic insulin-making cells. In the laboratory, Wei and coworkers succeeded in stimulating hAECs to secrete insulin and express the main sugar transport protein found in pancreatic insulin-secreting cells (Wei et al., Cell Transplantation 2003 12(5): 545-552). When transplanted into diabetic mice, hAECs normalize their blood sugar levels and their weights returned to normal. This shows that hAECs might represent a major breakthrough in the management of diabetes.

Clearly these cells, which come from a tissue that is normally thrown out after birth, are brimming with possibilities for regenerative medicine. Hopefully more research will produce even more possibilities.

Stem Cell-Derived Exosomes May Prevent Lung Disease in Babies

Now there’s a word you don’t see everyday: Exosome. What on earth is an exosome? They are small, membrane-enclosed vesicles that are released by cells. Exosomes contain proteins and nucleic acids, and they are have surfaces that are decorated with various types of proteins. Exosomes are 40-100 nm in diameter and there are several different cell types that are known to secrete exosomes. Cancer cells use exosomes to mold surrounding cell into structures that the cancer needs (see Huang et al., (2011). Cancer Lett 315, 28-37 and Cho et al., (2012). Int J Oncol. 40(1):130-138). Likewise, exosomes from mesenchymal stem cells seem to delivery proteins and RNA to heart muscle cells that help them heal after a heart attack (Lai et al., Regen. Med. (2011) 6(4), 481–492). Finally, there have been reports that exosomes can protect against tissue injury such as acute kidney damage (see Bruno S, et al. (2009). J. Am. Soc. Nephrol. 20, 1053–1067.

New work from Harvard University’s Boston Children’s Newborn Medicine division in Massachusetts suggests that exosomes from stem cells can protect the fragile lungs of premature babies from serious lung diseases and chronic lung injury. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) can decrease inflammation under several different conditions. They seem to do so by secreting exosomes that hold inflammatory cells at bay. In a mouse model of lung inflammation, infused MSCs can quell inflammation, but the culture medium in which the MSCs were grown can do as good a job and decreasing inflammation as the whole cells. This suggest that the MSCs are making something that assuages inflammation (see Ionescu, L. et al., (2012). Am J Physiol Lung Cell Mol Physiol. doi: 10.​1152/​ajplung.​00144.​2011).

Babies born prematurely have to struggle to get sufficient oxygen into their small, incipient lungs. This causes these poor babies to suffer from chronic oxygen insufficiencies (hypoxia) and they usually need artificial respirators to breathe. The lungs of these babies are susceptible to inflammation and this can lead to chronic lung disease and poor lung function.

Lung inflammation also causes pulmonary hypertension, which simply means that the blood pressure in the artery that carries blood from the heart to the lungs (pulmonary artery) is abnormally high. This causes foaming in the lungs, which reduces gas exchange in the lungs, but the lungs also start to thicken and scar over and that also permanently decreases gas exchange.

Stella Kourembanas is the chair of Boston Medical’s Newborn Medicine Division, and she is heading up investigations into the efficacy of MSC-derived exosomes to stave off inflammation in the lungs of premature babies.

Kourembanas explained, “PH (pulmonary hypertension) is a complex disease fueled by diverse, intertwined cellular and molecular pathways. We have treatments that improve symptoms but no cure, largely because of this complexity. We need to be able to target more than one pathway at a time.”

In 2009, Kourembanas and her colleagues showed that injections of MSCs could prevent PH and chronic lung injury in a newborn mouse model of the disease (Bone marrow stromal cells attenuate lung injury in a murine model of neonatal chronic lung disease (Aslam M, et al., (2009). Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 180(11):1122-30). They also showed that they could achieve the same results by injecting the growth medium that had previously fed the cells.

According to Kourembanas, “We knew, then, that the significant anti-inflammatory and protective effects we saw had to e caused by something released by he MSCs.”

To further their search for factors that heal damaged lungs, Kourembanas and co-workers searched the growth medium of MSCs and they came upon exosomes. By purifying exosomes from the growth medium, Kourembanas’ team showed that the anti-inflammatory effects of the MSCs could be completely recapitulated by simply applying isolated exosomes to the lungs of newborn mice.

Kourembanas said, “We are working to figure out what exactly within the MSC-produced exosomes causes these anti-inflammatory and protective effects. But we know that these exosomes contain microRNAs as well as other nucleic acids. They also induce expression of specific microRNAs in the recipient lung.”

MicroRNAs a small RNA molecules that regulate gene expression. Thousands of microRNAs have been discovered and they are also found in many different biological organisms ranging from plants to worms, to fish, frogs and people.

Kourembanas noted that, “What we may be seeing is the effect of these microRNAs on the expression of multiple genes and the activity of multiple genes and the activity of multiple pathways within the lungs and the immune system all at once.”

Kourembanas hopes that exosome research will someday act alongside stem cell-based therapies. MSC-based exosomes could potentially be used as treatments for premature babies at risk of suffering from chronic lung disease and PH. Also, MSCs are not the only cells that make useful exosomes. Umbilical cord stem cells also secrete exosomes with therapeutic value. Even though many different types of stem cells are recognized by the immune system as foreign, exosomes are not, which gives them an added advantage as therapeutic agents. Kourembanas notes, “they could potentially be collected, banked and given like a drug without the risks of rejection or tumor development that can theoretically come with donor cell or stem cell transplantation.”