Culture Medium from Endothelial Progenitor Cells Heals Hearts

Endothelial Progenitor Cells or EPCs have the capacity to make new blood vessels but they also produce a cocktail of healing molecules. EPCs typically come from bone marrow, but they can also be isolated from circulating blood, and a few other sources.

The laboratory of Noel Caplice at the Center for Research in Vascular Biology in Dublin, Ireland, has grown EPCs in culture and shown that they make a variety of molecules useful to organ and tissue repair. For example, in 2008 Caplice published a paper in the journal Stem Cells and Development in workers in his lab showed that injection of EPCs into the hearts of pigs after a heart attack increased the mass of the heat muscle and that this increase in heart muscle was due to a molecule secreted by the EPCs called TGF-beta1 (see Doyle B, et al., Stem Cells Dev. 2008 Oct;17(5):941-51).

In other experiments, Caplice and his colleagues showed that the culture medium of EPCs grown in the laboratory contained a growth factor called “insulin-like growth factor-1” or IGF1. IGF1 is known to play an important role in the healing of the heart after a heart attack. Therefore, Caplice and his colleagues tried to determine if IGF1 was one of the main reasons EPCs heal the heart.

To test the efficacy of IGF1 from cultured EPCs, Caplice’s team grew EPCs in the laboratory and took the culture medium and tested the ability of this culture medium to stave off death in oxygen-starved heart muscle cells in culture. Sure enough, the EPC-conditioned culture medium prevented heart muscle cells from dying as a result of a lack of oxygen.

When they checked to see if IGF1 was present in the medium, it certainly was. IGF1 is known to induce the activity of a protein called “Akt” inside cells once they bind IGF1. The heart muscle cells clearly had activated their Akt proteins, thus strongly indicating the presence of IGF1 in the culture medium. Next they used an antibody that specifically binds to IGF1 and prevents it from binding to the surface of the heart muscle cells. When they added this antibody to the conditioned medium, it completely abrogated any effects of IGF1. This definitively demonstrates that IGF1 in the culture medium is responsible for its effects on heart muscle cells.

Will this conditioned medium work in a laboratory animal? The answer is yes. After inducing a heart attack, injection of the conditioned medium into the heart decreased the amount of cell death in the heart and increased the number of heart muscle cells in the infarct zone, and increased heart function when examined eight weeks after the heart attacks were induced. The density of blood vessels in the area of the infarct also increased as a result of injecting IGF1. All of these effects were abrogated by co-injection of the antibody that specifically binds IGF1.

From this study Caplice summarized that very small amounts of IGF1 (picogram quantities in fact) administered into the heart have potent acute and chronic beneficial effects when introduced into the heart after a heart attack.

These data are good enough grounds for proposing clinical studies. Hopefully we will see some in the near future.

Blood Vessel-Making Stem Cells From Fat

Blood vessel obstruction deprives tissues of life-giving oxygen and leads to the death of cells. If enough cells within a tissue die, the organ in which whose tissues reside could experience organ failure.

To quote the Sound of Music, “How does one solve a problem like blood vessel obstruction?” The obvious answer is to make new blood vessels to replace the blocked ones. Scientists have identified growth factors that are important in blood vessel formation during development. Therefore, injecting these growth factors should lead to the formation of new blood vessels, right? Unfortunately, such a strategy does not work very well (see Collison and Donnelly, Eur J Vasc Endovasc Surg 2004 28:9-23). Therefore, vascular specialists have focused on the ability of stem cells make new blood vessels, and this approach has yielded some very definite successes.

During development, the same stem cell gives rise to blood vessels and blood cells. This stem cell, the hemangioblast is found in a structure known as the yolk sac (even though it never functions as a yolk sac). In the yolk sac, during the third week of development, little specs form called “blood islands. These blood islands are small clusters of hemangioblasts with the cells at the center of the cluster forming blood cells and the cells at the periphery of the blood island forming blood vessels.

In adults, blood cell-making stem cells are found in the bone marrow. Blood vessel-making stem cells are endothelial progenitor cells or EPCs can be rather easily isolated from peripheral blood, however they are thought to originate from bone marrow. EPCs are not a homogeneous group of cells. There are different types with different surface molecules found in different locations.

Recently another cell from circulating blood called an “endothelial colony forming cell” or ECFC has been discovered, and this cell can attach to uncoated plastic surfaces in a growth medium. These cells can be grown to high numbers, even though it takes a rather long time to expand them. Once the ECFC culture system is further perfected, ECFCs will be excellent candidates for therapeutic trials (Reinisch et al., Blood 2009 113: 6716-25).

Fat tissue is also a reservoir of EPCs and mesenchymal stem cells. Fat-based mesenchymal stem cells help induce blood vessel formation and stimulate fat-based EPCs form blood vessels. Because of this remarkable “one-two punch” in fat, with cells that stimulate blood vessel formation and cells that actually form blood vessels, fat is a source of blood vessel-forming cells that can be used for therapeutic purposes.

Stem cells from fat.
Stem cells from fat.

Several pre-clinical experiments and presently ongoing clinical trials have examined the ability of fat-based stems to treat patients with conditions that result from insufficient circulation to various tissues. In rodents, experimental obstruction of the blood vessels in the hindlimb create a condition called “hindlimb ischemia.” In a rodent model of hindlimb ischemia, human fat-based stem cell applications not only improve the use of the limb and decrease limb damage, but also induce the formation of new blood vessels that definitely come from the applied stem cells (Miranville, et al., Circulation 2004 110: 349-55; Planat-Bernard, et al., Circulation 2004 109: 656-63 & Moon et al., Cell Physiol Biochem 2006 17: 279-90). Several clinical trials have been conducted with bone marrow-based EPCs for limb-based ischemia in humans, and these trials have been largely successful(see Szoke and Brinchmann, Stem Cells Translational Medicine 2012: 658-67 for a list of these trials). Adding mesenchymal stem cells from fat might improve the results of these trials.

In the heart, obstructed blood vessels can cause intense chest pain, a condition known as “angina pectoris.” EPCs have been used in clinical trials to treat patients with angina pectoris, and these trials have all been successful and have all used EPCs from bone marrow. These experiments, despite their success, have used bone marrow-based cells that were not fractionated and EPCs are less than 1% of the total number of cells. Also, the vast majority of cells introduced into heart migrate into the lungs, spleen and other organs. Also, those cells that remain tend to die off. A way to improve the survival of these implanted cells might be to combine them with mesenchymal stem cells from fat with EPCs from fat. Presently, the MyStromalCell trial is underway to test the efficacy of fat-based stem cells on the heart.

Fat provides an incredible treasure-trove of healing cells that have been demonstrated in animal experiments to relieve tissue ischemia and generate new blood vessels (for a summary of pre-clinical experiments in laboratory animals, see Qayyum AA, et al., Regen Med. 2012 May;7(3):421-8). Clinical trials with these cells are also underway. We have almost certainly only begun to tap to potential of these exciting cells that can be extracted so easily for our bodies.