Conditioning Stem Cells to Survive in the Heart


After a heart attack, the heart is a very inhospitable place for implanted stem cells. These cells have to deal with low oxygen levels, marauding white blood cells, toxins released from dead or nearly-dead cells, and other nasty things.

Getting cells to survive in this place is essential if the cells are going to provide any healing to he heart. Fortunately, a Chinese group has discovered that growing cells in inhospitable conditions before implantation greatly improves their survival. Now, this same group from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia has shown that a small molecule can do the same thing.

This work, published in Current Stem Cell Research and Therapy, centers upon a pathway in cells controlled by a protein called the hypoxia-inducible factor or HIF. This protein regulates those genes that allow cells to withstand low-oxygen and other stressful conditions. HIF is composed of two parts: an oxygen-sensitive inducible HIF-1α subunit and a constitutive HIF-1β subunit. During nonstressful conditions, the alpha subunit is constantly being degraded after it is made because it is modified by a enzymes called prolyl hydroxylase (PHD) enzymes. In the presence of low oxygen conditions, PHD enzymes are inhibited and HIF-1α increases in concentration. The HIFα/β heterodimer forms and is stabilized, and translocates to the nucleus where it activates target genes.

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It turns out that small molecules can inhibit PHD enzymes and induce the low-oxygen status in cells without subjecting them to rigorous culture conditions. For example, dimethyloxalylglycine (DMOG) can inhibit PHD enzymes and produce in cells the types of responses normally observed under low-oxygen conditions.

In this paper, Ling Wei and colleagues cultured mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow with or without 1 mM DMOG for 24 hours in complete culture medium before transplantation. These cells were then transplanted into the hearts of rats 30 minutes after those rats had suffered an experimentally-induced heart attack. They then measured the rates of cell death 24 hours after engraftment, and heart function, new blood vessel formation and infarct size 4 weeks later.

In DMOG-preconditioned bone marrow MSCs (DMOG-BMSCs), the expression of survival and blood-vessel-making factors were significantly increased. In comparison with control cells.  DMOG-BMSCs also survived better and enhanced the formation of new blood vessels in culture and when implanted into the heart of a living animal.
C to H , Angiogenesis was inspected using vWF staining (red) in heart sections from MI, C-BMSC and DMOG-BMSC groups 4 weeks after MI. Hoechst staining (blue) s hows the total cells. I. Summary of total tube length measured in experiments A and B. The t otal tube length in C- BMSC group was arbitrarily presented as 1. N = 3 independent measure ments. J , Summary of total vessel density in different groups of in vivo experiments. N = 8 animals in each group. * P <0.05 compared with C-BMSC group; # P <0.05 compared with MI control group.
C to H, Angiogenesis was inspected using vWF staining (red) in heart sections from MI, C-BMSC
and DMOG-BMSC groups 4 weeks after MI. Hoechst staining (blue) shows the total cells. I. Summary of total tube length measured in experiments A and B. The total tube length in C-BMSC group was arbitrarily presented as 1. N = 3 independent measurements. J, Summary of total vessel density in different groups of in vivo experiments. N = 8 animals in each group.
Transplantation of DMOG-BMSCs also reduced heart infarct size and promoted functional benefits of the cell therapy.
Effect of BMSCs transplantation on ischemia-induced infarct formation. Heart infarct area and scar formation were determined using Masson’s Trichrome staining 4 weeks after MI. A to C . Images of representative infarcted hearts from a MI control rat, a MI rat received C-BMSCs, and a MI rat received DMOG-BMSCs. D. Transplantation of BMSCs reduced heart infarction formation, the protective effects were significantly greater with transplantation of DMOG-BMSCs. N = 5 rats in each group. * P <0.05 compared with MI group; # P <0.05 compared with C-BMSC group.
Effect of BMSCs transplantation on ischemia-induced infarct formation. Heart infarct area and scar formation were determined using Masson’s
Trichrome staining 4 weeks after MI. A to C. Images of representative infarcted hearts from a MI control
rat, a MI rat received C-BMSCs, and a MI rat received DMOG-BMSCs. D. Transplantation of BMSCs
reduced heart infarction formation, the protective effects were significantly greater with transplantation of DMOG-BMSCs. N = 5 rats in each group.
Thus, this paper shows that targeting an oxygen sensing system in stem cells such as PHD enzymes (prolyl hydroxylase) provides a new promising pharmacological approach for enhanced survival of BMSCs.  This procedure also increases paracrine signaling, augments the regenerative activities of these cells, and, ultimately, and improves functional recovery of the heart as a result of cell transplantation therapy for the heart after a heart attack.  This is only a preclinical study, but the data is strong, and hopefully new clinical trials will bear this out.

Primed Fat-Based Stem Cells Enhance Heart Muscle Proliferation


A Dutch group from the University of Groningen has shown that fat-based stem cells can enhance the proliferation of cultured heart muscle cells. The stem cells used in these experiments were preconditioned and this pretreatment greatly enhanced their ability to activate heart muscle cells.

This paper, by Ewa Przybyt, Guido Krenning, Marja Brinker, and Martin Harmsen was published in the Journal of Translational Medicine. To begin, Przybyt and others extracted human adipose derived stromal cells (ADSC) from fat tissue extracted from human liposuction surgeries. To do this, they digested the fat with enzymes, centrifuged and washed it, and then grew the remaining cells in culture.

Then they used rat neonatal heart muscle cells and infected them with viruses that causes them to glow when certain types of light was shined on them. Then Przybyt and others co-cultured these rat heart cells with human ADSCs.

In the first experiment, the ADSCs were treated with drugs to prevent them from dividing and then they were cultured with rat heart cells in a one-to-one ratio. The heart muscle cells grew faster with the ADSCs than they did without them. To determine if cell-cell contact was required for this stimulation, they used the culture medium from ADSCs and grew the heart cell on this culture medium. Once again, the heart cells grew faster with the ADSC culture medium than without it. These results suggest that the ADSCs stimulate heart cell proliferation by secreting factors that activate heart cell division.

Another experiment subjected the cultured heart cells to the types of conditions they might experience inside the heart after a heart attack. For example, heart cells were subjected to low oxygen tensions (2% oxygen), and inflammation – two conditions found within the heart after a heart attack. These treatments slowed heart cell growth, but this heart cell growth was restored by adding the growth medium of ADSCs. Even more remarkably, when ADSCs were grown in low-oxygen conditions or treated with inflammatory molecules (tumor necrosis factor-alpha or interleukin-1beta), the culture medium increased the fractions of cells that grew. Therefore, ADSCs secrete molecules that increase heart muscle cell proliferation, and increase proliferation even more after the ADSCs are preconditioned by either low oxygen tensions or inflammation.

In the next experiment, Przybyt and others examined the molecules secreted by ADSCs under normal or low-oxygen tensions to ascertain what secreted molecules stimulated heart cell growth. It was clear that the production of a small protein called interleukin-6 was greatly upregulated.

Could interleukin-6 account for the increased proliferation of heart cells? Another experiment showed that the answer was yes. Cultured heart cells treated with interleukin-6 showed increased proliferation, and when antibodies against interleukin-6 were used to prevent interleukin-6 from binding to the heart cells, these antibodies abrogated the effects of interleukin-6.

Przybyt and others then took these results one step further. Since the signaling pathways used by interleukin-6 are well-known, they examined these pathways. Now interleukin-6 signals through pathways, once of which enhances cell survival, and another pathway that stimulated cell proliferation. The cell proliferation pathway uses a protein called “STAT3” and the survival function uses a protein called “Akt.” Both pathways were activated by interleukin-6. Also, the culture medium of ADSCs that were treated with interleukin-6 induced the interleukin-6 receptor proteins (gp80 and gp130) in cultured heart muscle cells. This gives heart muscle cells a greater capacity to respond secreted interleukin-6.

This paper shows that stromal stem cells from fat has the capacity, in culture, to activate the growth of cultured heart muscle cells. Also, if these cells were preconditioned with low oxygen tensions or pro-inflammatory molecules, those fat-based stem cells secreted interleukin-6, which enhanced heart muscle cell survival, and proliferation, even if those heart muscle cells are exposed to low-oxygen tensions or inflammatory molecules.

This suggests that preconditioned stem cells from fat might be able to protect heart muscle cells and augment heart healing after a heart attack. Alternatively, cardiac administration of interleukin-6 after a heart attack might prove even more effective to protect heart muscle cells and stimulate heart muscle cell proliferation. Human trials anyone?

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.