Stem Cell Treatments for Aortic Aneurysms


The aorta is the largest blood vessel in our bodies and it emerges from the left ventricle of the heart, takes a U-turn, and swings down toward the legs (descending or dorsal aorta). There are several branches of the aorta as it sharply turns that extend towards the head and upper extremities.

Aorta structure

Sometimes, as a result of inflammation of the aorta or other types of problems, the elastic matrix that surrounds and reinforces the aorta breaks down.  This weakens the wall of the aorta and it bulges out.  This bulge is called an aortic aneurysm and it is a dangerous condition because the aneurysm can burst, which will cause the patient to bleed to death.

Aortic Aneurysm

If an aneurysm is discovered through medical imaging techniques, drugs are given to lower blood pressure and take some of the pressure off the aorta.  Also, drugs that prevent further degradation of the elastic matrix are also used.  Ultimately, for large or fast-growing aneurysms, surgical repair of the aorta is necessary.  For aneurysms of the abdominal aorta, a surgical procedure called abdominal aortic aneurysm open repair is the “industry standard.”  For this surgery, the abdomen is cut open, and the aneurysm is repaired by the use of a long cylinder-like tube called a graft.  Such grafts are made of different materials that include Dacron (textile polyester synthetic graft) or polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, a nontextile synthetic graft).  The surgeon sutures the graft to the aorta, and connects one end of the aorta at the site of the aneurysm to the other end.

A “kinder, gentler” way to fix an aneurysm is to use a procedure called endovascular aneurysm repair (EVAR).  EVAR uses these devices called “stents” to support the wall of the aorta.  A small insertion is made in the groin and the collapsed stent is inserted through the large artery in the leg.  Then the stent, which is long cylinder-like tube made of a thin metal framework and covered with various materials such as Dacron or polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), is inserted into the aneurysm.  Once in place, the stent-graft will be expanded in a spring-like fashion to attach to the wall of the aorta and support it.  The aneurysm will eventually shrink down onto the stent-graft.

In some cases, the patient is too weak for surgery, and is not a candidate for EVAR.  A much better option would be to non-surgically repair the elastic support framework that surrounds the aorta, and stem cells are candidates for such repair.

To repair the elastic mesh work that surrounds the wall of the aorta, smooth muscle cells that secrete the protein “elastin” must be introduced into the wall of the aorta.  Also, using the patient’s own stem cells offers a better strategy at this point, since this circumvents such issues as immune rejection of implanted tissues and so on.  The sources of stem cells for smooth muscle cells include bone marrow stem cells, fat-based stem cells, and stem cells from peripheral blood.  All three of these stem cell sources have problems with finding enough cells in the body and expanding them to high enough numbers in order to properly treat the aneurysm.

Fortunately, the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, which are made from a patient’s mature cells and have many, though not all of the characteristics of embryonic stem cells, can provide large quantities of elastin-secreting smooth muscle cells.  Also, one laboratory in particular has reported differentiating human induced pluripotent stem cells into smooth muscle cells (Lee TH, Song SH, Kim KL, et al. Circ Res 106:120–128).  While there are challenges to making functional elastin, there are possibilities that many of these can be overcome.

Ideal characteristics and expected roles of iPSCs and differentiated SMC-like derivatives for treating AAAs. Shown are several of the necessary properties for expansion/differentiation in culture, delivery to the AAA, and elastogenesis within the tunica media microenvironment. Abbreviations: AAA, abdominal aortic aneurysm; ECM, extracellular matrix; Eln, elastin; iPSC, induced pluripotent stem cell; LOX, lysyl oxidase; MMPs, matrix metalloproteinases; SMC, smooth muscle cell; TNFα, tumor necrosis factor-α.
Ideal characteristics and expected roles of iPSCs and differentiated SMC-like derivatives for treating AAAs. Shown are several of the necessary properties for expansion/differentiation in culture, delivery to the AAA, and elastogenesis within the tunica media microenvironment. Abbreviations: AAA, abdominal aortic aneurysm; ECM, extracellular matrix; Eln, elastin; iPSC, induced pluripotent stem cell; LOX, lysyl oxidase; MMPs, matrix metalloproteinases; SMC, smooth muscle cell; TNFα, tumor necrosis factor-α.

In addition to induced pluripotent stem cells, other laboratories have examined umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells and their ability to decrease the inflammation within the aorta that leads to aneurysms.  The researchers discovered that all the indicators of inflammation decreased, but the synthesis of new elastin was not examined.  However, a Japanese laboratory used mouse mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow and found that not only did these cells shut down enzymes that tend to degrade elastin, but also initiated new elastin synthesis in culture.  The same study also showed that MSCs implanted into the vessel walls of an aorta that was experiencing an aneurysm stabilized the aneurysm by inhibiting the elastin-degrading enzymes, and increasing the elastin content of the vessel wall.  This had the net effect of stabilizing the aneurysms and preventing them from growing further (see Hashizume R, Yamawaki-Ogata A, Ueda Y, et al. J Vasc Surg 54:1743–1752).  

These experiments show that stem cell treatments for abdominal aneurysms are feasible and would definitely be a much-needed nonsurgical treatment option for the high-risk elderly demographic, which is rapidly growing in the developed world.

For more information on this interesting topic, see Chris A. BashuraRaj R. Raob and Anand Ramamurthia. Perspectives on Stem Cell-Based Elastic Matrix Regenerative Therapies for Abdominal Aortic Aneurysms.  Stem Cells Trans Med June 2013 vol. 2 no. 6 401-408.

New Analysis of Stem Cell Treatments for Spinal Cord Injury in Laboratory Animals


A host of preclinical studies have examined the ability of stem cells to improve the condition of laboratory animals that have suffered a spinal cord injury. While these studies vary in their size, design, and quality, there has been little cumulative analysis of the data generated by these studies.

Fortunately, there is a powerful analytical tool that can examine data from many studies and this type of analysis is called a “meta-analysis.” Meta-analyses use sophisticated statistical packages to systematically reassess a compilation of the data contained within these papers. Meta-analyses are exhausting, but potentially very useful. Such a meta-analysis is also very important because it provides researchers with an indication of what problems must be worked out before these treatments advance to human clinical trials and what aspects of the treatment work better than others.

A recent meta-analysis of stem cell therapy on animal models of spinal cord injury has been published by Ana Antonic, MSc, David Howells, Ph.D., and colleagues from the Florey Institute and the University of Melbourne, Australia, along with Malcolm MacLeod and colleagues from the University of Edinburgh, UK in the open access journal PLOS Biology.

The goal of regenerative spinal cord treatments is to use stem cells to replace dead cells within damaged areas of the spinal cord. Such treatments would be given to spinal cord injury patients in the hope of improving the ability to move and to feel below the site of the injury. Many experiments that utilize animal models of spinal cord injury have used stem cells to treat laboratory animals that have suffered spinal cord injury, but, unfortunately, these studies are limited in scale by size (as a result of financial considerations), practical and ethical considerations. Such limitations hamper each individual study’s statistical power to detect the true effects of the stem cell implantation. Also, these studies use different types of stem cells in their treatment scenarios, inject those cells differently induce spinal cord injuries differently, and test their animals for functional recovery differently.

To assess these studies, this new paper examined 156 published studies, all of which tested the effects of stem cell treatments on about 6,000 spinal cord-injured animals.

Overall, they found that stem cell treatment results in an average improvement of about 25 percent over the post-injury performance in both sensory (ability to feel) and motor (ability to move) outcomes. Unfortunately, the variation from one animal to another varied widely.

For sensory outcomes the degree of improvement tended to increase with the number of cells implanted. Such dose-responsive results tend to indicate that the improvements are actually due to the stem cells, and therefore, this stem cell-mediated effect represents a genuine biological effect.

The authors also measured the effects of bias. Simply put, if the experimenters knew which animals were treated and which were untreated, then they might be more likely to report improvements in the stem cell-treated animals. They also examined the way that the stem cells were cultured, the way that the spinal injury was generated and the way that outcomes were measured. In each case, important lessons were learned that should help inform and refine the design of future animal studies.

The meta-analysis also revealed some surprises that should provoke further investigations. For example, there was little evidence that female animals showed any beneficial sensory effects as a result of stem cell treatments. Also, the efficacy of the stem cell treatment seemed to not depend on whether immunosuppressive drugs were administered or not.

The authors conclude, “Extensive recent preclinical literature suggests that stem cell-based therapies may offer promise; however the impact of compromised internal validity and publication bias means that efficacy is likely to be somewhat lower than reported here.”

Even though human clinical trials are in the works, such trials will continue to be informed by preclinical studies on laboratory animals.

Growing Skeletal Muscle in the Laboratory


Skeletal muscle – that type of voluntary muscle that allows movement – has proven difficult to grow in the laboratory. While particular cells can be differentiated into skeletal muscle cells, forming a coherent, structurally sound skeletal muscle is a tough nut to crack from a research perspective.

Another problem dogging muscle research is the difficulty growing new muscle in patients with muscle diseases such as muscular dystrophy or other types of disorders that weaken and degrade skeletal muscle.

Now research groups at the Boston Children’s Hospital Stem Cell Program have reported that they can boost the muscle mass and even reverse the disease of mice that suffer from a type of murine muscular dystrophy. To do this, this group use a combination of three different compounds that were identified in a rapid culture system.

This ingenious rapid culture system uses the cells of zebrafish (Danio rerio) embryos to screen for these muscle-inducing compounds. These single cells are placed into the well of a 96-well plate, and then treated with various compounds to determine if those chemical induce the muscle formation. To facilitate this process, the zebrafish embryo cells express a very special marker that consists of the myosin light polypeptide 2 gene fused to a red-colored protein called “cherry.” When cells become muscle, they express the myosin light polypeptide 2 gene at high levels. Therefore, any embryo cell that differentiates into muscle should glow a red color.

(A) myf5-GFP;mylz2-mCherry double-transgenic expression recapitulates expression of the endogenous genes. myf5-GFP is first detected at the 11-somite stage. mylz2-mCherry expression is not observed until 32 hpf. Scale bars represent 200 mm. (B) myf5-GFP;mylz2-mCherry embryos were dissociated at the oblong stage and cultured in zESC medium. Images were taken 48 hr after plating. Scale bars represent 250 mm.
(A) myf5-GFP;mylz2-mCherry double-transgenic expression recapitulates expression of the endogenous genes. myf5-GFP is first detected at the 11-somite
stage. mylz2-mCherry expression is not observed until 32 hpf. Scale bars represent 200 mm.
(B) myf5-GFP;mylz2-mCherry embryos were dissociated at the oblong stage and cultured in zESC medium. Images were taken 48 hr after plating. Scale bars
represent 250 mm.

Once a cocktail of muscle-inducing chemicals were identified in this assay, those same chemicals were used to treat induced pluripotent stem cells made from cells taken from patients with muscular dystrophy.  Those iPSCs were treated with the combination of chemicals identified in the zebrafish embryo screen as muscle inducing agents.

Zebrafish embryo culture system

The results were outstanding.  Leonard Zon from the Division of Hematology/Oncology, Children’s Hospital Boston and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and his colleagues showed that a combination of basic Fibroblast Growth Factor, an  adenylyl cyclase activator called forskolin, and the GSK3β inhibitor BIO induced skeletal muscle differentiation in human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).  Furthermore, these muscle cells produced engraftable myogenic progenitors that contributed to muscle repair when implanted into mice with a rodent form of muscular dystrophy.

Representative hematoxylin and eosin staining (H&E) images and immunostaining on TA sections of preinjured NSG mice injected with 1 3 105 iPSCs at day 14 of differentiation. Muscles injected with BJ, 00409, or 05400 iPSC-derived cells stain positively for human d-Sarcoglycan protein (red). Fibers were counterstained with Laminin (green). No staining is observed in PBS-injected mice or when 00409 fibroblast cells were transplanted. Because the area of human cell engraftment could not be specifically distinguished on H&E stained sections, which must be processed differently from sections for immunostaining, the H&E images shown do not represent the same muscle region as that shown in immunofluorescence images. Scale bars represent 100 mm, n = 3 per sample.
Representative hematoxylin and eosin staining
(H&E) images and immunostaining on TA sections
of preinjured NSG mice injected with 1 3 105
iPSCs at day 14 of differentiation. Muscles injected
with BJ, 00409, or 05400 iPSC-derived cells
stain positively for human d-Sarcoglycan protein
(red). Fibers were counterstained with Laminin
(green). No staining is observed in PBS-injected
mice or when 00409 fibroblast cells were transplanted.
Because the area of human cell engraftment
could not be specifically distinguished on
H&E stained sections, which must be processed
differently from sections for immunostaining, the
H&E images shown do not represent the same
muscle region as that shown in immunofluorescence
images. Scale bars represent 100 mm, n = 3
per sample.

Zon hopes that clinical trials can being soon in order to translate these remarkable results into patients with muscle loss within the next several years.  Zon and his co-workers are also screening compounds to address other types of disorders beyond muscular dystrophy.

This paper represents the application of shear and utter genius.  However, there is one caveat.  The mice into which the muscles were injected were immunodeficient mice whose immune systems are unable to reject transplanted tissues.  In human patients with muscular dystrophy, an immune response against dystrophin, the defective protein, has been an enduring problem (for a review of this, see T. Okada and S. Takeda, Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2013 Jun 27;6(7):813-836).  While there have been some technological developments that might circumvent this problem, transplanting large quantities of muscle cells might be beyond the pale.  Muscular dystrophy results from disruption of an important junction between the muscle and substratum to which the muscle is secured.  This connection is mediated by the “dystrophin-glycoprotein complex.”  Structural disruptions of this complex (shown below) lead to unanchored muscle that cannot contract properly, and eventually atrophies and degrades.

Dystrophin-glycoprotein complex. Molecular structure of the dystrophin-glycoprotein complex and related proteins superimposed on the sarcolemma and subsarcolemmal actin network (redrawn from Yoshida et al. [5], with modifications). cc, coiled-coil motif on dystrophin (Dys) and dystrobrevin (DB); SGC, sarcoglycan complex;SSPN, sarcospan; Syn, syntrophin; Cav3, caveolin-3; N and C, the N and C termini, respectively; G, G-domain of laminin; asterisk indicates the actin-binding site on the dystrophin rod domain; WW, WW domain.
Dystrophin-glycoprotein complex. Molecular structure of the dystrophin-glycoprotein complex and related proteins superimposed on the sarcolemma and subsarcolemmal actin network (redrawn from Yoshida et al. [5], with modifications). cc, coiled-coil motif on dystrophin (Dys) and dystrobrevin (DB); SGC, sarcoglycan complex;SSPN, sarcospan; Syn, syntrophin; Cav3, caveolin-3; N and C, the N and C termini, respectively; G, G-domain of laminin; asterisk indicates the actin-binding site on the dystrophin rod domain; WW, WW domain.
This is a remarkable advance, but until the host immune response issue is satisfactorily addressed, it will remain a problem.

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.