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.

The Mechanism Behind Blood Stem Cell Longevity

The blood stem cells that live in bone marrow divide and send their progeny down various pathways that ultimately produce red cells, white cells and platelets. These “daughter” cells must be produced at a rate of about one million cells per second in order to constantly replenish the body’s blood supply.

A nagging question is how these stem cells to persist for decades even though their progeny last for days, weeks or months before they need to be replaced. A study from the University of Pennsylvania has uncovered one of the mechanisms, and these cellular mechanisms allow these stem cells to keep dividing in perpetuity.

Dennis Discher and his colleagues in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science found that a form of a protein called “myosin,” the motor protein that allow muscles to contract, helps bone marrow stem cells divide asymmetrically. This asymmetric cell division helps one cell remains a stem cell while the other cell becomes a daughter cell. Discher’s findings might provide new insights into blood cancers, such as leukemia, and eventually lead to ways of growing transfusable blood cells in a laboratory.

The participants in this study were members of the Discher laboratory, which include lead author Jae-Won Shin, Amnon Buxboim, Kyle R. Spinler, Joe Swift, Dave P. Dingal, Irena L. Ivanovska and Florian Rehfeldt. Discher collaborated with researchers at the Univ. de Strasbourg, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Univ. of California, San Francisco. This paper was published in Cell Stem Cell.

“Your blood cells are constantly getting worn out and replaced,” Discher said. “We want to understand how the stem cells responsible for making these cells can last for decades without being exhausted.”

Presently, scientists understand the near immortality of hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) as a result of their asymmetric cell division, although how this asymmetric cell division enables stem cell longevity was unknown. To ferret out this mechanism, Discher and his coworkers analyzed all of the genes expressed in the stem cells and compared them with the genes expression in their more rapidly dividing progeny. Those proteins that only went to one side of the dividing cell might play a role in partitioning other key factors responsible for keeping one of the cells a stem cell and the other a progeny cell.

One of the proteins that showed a distinct expression pattern was the motor protein myosin II, which has two forms, myosin A and myosin B. Myosin II is the protein that enables the body’s muscles to contract, but in nonmuscle cells also it used during cell division. During the last phase of cell division, known as cytokinesis, myosin II helps cleave and close off the cell membranes as the cell splits apart.

“We found that the stem cell has both types of myosin,” Shin said, “whereas the final red and white blood cells only had the A form. We inferred that the B form was key to splitting the stem cells in an asymmetric way that kept the B form only in the stem cell.”

With these myosins as their top candidate, Discher and others labeled key proteins in dividing stem cells with different colors and put them under the microscope.

“We could see that the myosin IIB goes to one side of the dividing cell, which causes it to cleave differently,” Discher said. ”It’s like a tug of war, and the side with the B pulls harder and stays a stem cell.”

The researchers then performed in vivo tests using mice that had human stem cells injected into their bone marrow. By genetically inhibiting myosin IIB production, Shin and others saw the stem cells and their early progeny proliferating while the amount of downstream blood cells dropped.

“Because the stem cells were not able to divide asymmetrically, they just kept making more of themselves in the marrow at the expense of the differentiated cells,” Discher said.

HSC cell division mechanism

Discher and his team then used a drug that temporarily blocked both myosin A and myosin B. They observed that myosin inhibition increased the prevalence of non-dividing stem cells, blocking the more rapid division of progeny.

Discher believes that these findings could eventually help regrow blood stem cells after chemotherapy treatments for blood cancers or even grow blood products in the lab. Finding a drug that can temporarily shut down only the B form of myosin, while leaving the A form alone, would allow the stem cells to divide symmetrically and make more of themselves without preventing their progeny from dividing themselves.

“Nonetheless, the currently available drug that blocks both the A and B forms of myosin II could be useful in the clinic,” Shin said, “because donor bone marrow cultures can now easily be enriched for blood stem cells, and those are the cells of interest in transplants. Understanding the forces that stem cells use to divide can thus be exploited to better control these important cells.”

The Nooks and Crannies in Bone Marrow that Nurture Stem Cells

Stems cells in our bodies often require a specific environment to maximize their survival and efficiency. These specialized locations that nurture stem cells is called a stem cell niche. Finding the right niche for a stem cell population can go a long way toward growing more stem cells in culture and increasing their potency.

To that end, a recent discovery has identified the distinct niches that exist in bone marrow for hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), which form the blood cells in our bodies.

A research team from Washington university School of Medicine in St. Louis has shown that stem niches in bone marrow can be targeted, which may potentially improve bone marrow transplants and cancer chemotherapy. Drugs that support particular niches could encourage stem cells to establish themselves in the bone marrow, which would greatly increase the success rate of bone marrow transplants. Alternatively, tumor cells are known to hide in stem cell niches, and if drugs could disrupt such niches, then the tumor cells would be driven from the niches and become more susceptible to chemotherapeutic agents.

Daniel Link, the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor of Medicine at Washington University, said, “Our results offer hope for targeting these niches to treat specific cancers or to impress the success of stem cell transplants. Already, we and others are leading clinical trials to evaluate whether it is possible to disrupt these niches in patients with leukemia or multiple myeloma.”

Working in mice, Link and his colleagues deleted a gene called CXCL12, only in “candidate niche stromal cell populations.” CXCL12 which encodes a receptor protein known to be crucial for maintaining HSC function, including retaining HSCs in the bone marrow, controlling  HSCs activity, and repopulating the bone marrow with HSCs after injury.

CXCL12 crystal structure
CXCL12 crystal structure

CXCL12 signaling pathways

In bone marrow, HSCs are surrounded by a whole host of cells, and it is difficult to precisely identify which type of cells serve as the niche cells. These bone marrow cells are known collectively as “stroma,” but there are several different types of cells in stroma. Cells that have been implicated in the HSC niche include endosteal osteoblasts (osteoblasts are bone-making cells and the endosteum in the layer of connective tissue that lines the inner cavity of the bone), perivascular stromal cells (cells that hang out around blood vessels), CXCL12-abundant reticular cells, leptin-receptor-positive stromal cells, and nestin–positive mesenchymal progenitors. Basically, there are a lot of cells in the stroma and figuring out which one is the HSC niche is a big deal.

bone marrow stromal cells

When HSCs divide, they form two cells, one of which replaces the HSC that just divided and a new cells called a hematopoietic progenitor cell (HPC), which can divide and differentiate into either a lymphoid progenitor or a myeloid progenitor. The lymphoid progenitor differentiates into either a B or T lymphocyte and the myeloid progenitor differentiates into a red blood cell, or other types of white blood cells (neutrophil, basophil, macrophage, platelet or eosinophil). As the cells become more differentiated, they lose their capacity to divide.

HSC differentiation

Deleting CXCL12 from mineralizing osteoblasts (bone making cells) did nothing to the HSCs or those cells that form lymphocytes (lymphoid progenitors). Deletion of Cxcl12 from osterix-expressing stromal cells, which include CXCL12-abundant reticular cells and osteoblasts, causes mobilization of hematopoietic progenitor cells (HPCs) from the bone marrow into the bloodstream, and loss of B-lymphoid progenitors, but HSC function is normal. Cxcl12 deletion from blood vessel cells causes a modest loss of long-term repopulating activity. Deletion of Cxcl12 from nestin-negative mesenchymal progenitors causes a marked loss of HSCs, long-term repopulating activity, and lymphoid progenitors. All of these data suggest that osterix-expressing stromal cells comprise a distinct niche that supports B-lymphoid progenitors and retains HPCs in the bone marrow. Also, the expression of CXCL12 from stromal cells in the perivascular region, including endothelial cells and mesenchymal progenitors, supports HSCs.

Link summarized his results this way: “What we found was rather surprising. There’s not just one niche for developing blood cells in the bone marrow. There’s a distinct niche for stem cells, which have the ability to become any blood cell in the body, and a separate niche for infection-fighting cells that are destined to become T cells and B cells.”

These data provide the foundation for future investigations whether disrupting these niches can improve the effectiveness of cancer chemotherapy.

In a phase 2 study at Washington University, led by oncologist Geoffrey Uy, assistant professor of medicine, Link and his team are evaluating whether the drug G-CSF (granulocyte colony stimulating growth factor) can alter the stem cell niche in patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and whose disease is resistant to chemotherapy or has recurred. The FDA approved this drug more than 20 years ago to stimulate the production of white blood cells in patients undergoing chemotherapy, who have often weakened immune systems and are prone to infections.

Uy and his colleagues want to evaluate G-CSF if it is given prior to chemotherapy. Patients enrolled at the Siteman Cancer Center will receive G-CSF for five days before starting chemotherapy, and the investigators will determine whether it can disrupt the protective environment of the bone marrow and make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy.

This trial is ongoing, and the results are not yet in, but Link’s work has received a welcome corroboration of his work. A companion paper was published in the same issue of Nature by Sean Morrison, the director of the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Morrison and his team used similar methods as Link and his colleagues and came to very similar conclusions.

Link said, “There’s a lot of interest right now in trying to understand these niches. Both of these studies add new information that will be important as we move forward. Next, we hope to understand how stem cells niches can be manipulated to help patients undergoing stem cell transplants.”