One of the great findings of regenerative medicine was that organs previously believed to be incapable of healing themselves actually contain stem cells that in response to injury cause some degree of healing. The problem being that these "endogenous healing mechanisms" are usually too small to mediate effects that are visible at the clinical level. For example, the brain was considered to have very limited ability to heal itself after damage. Recent studies that have allowed for observation of brain cells after experimental strokes have led to the discovery of brain stem cells in the dendate gyrus and subventricular zones of the brain, stem cells that start to multiple after a stroke. Interestingly, various hormones such as human chonrionic gonadotropin, are capable of stimulating brain stem cell multiplication. This is currently being used in clinical trials for stroke by the company Stem Cell Therapeutics.
In the area of heart failure, it was also believed that once cardiac tissue is damaged, the only repair process that the body performs is production of scar tissue, which is pathological to the patient. While this scar tissue is found in the majority of the injured area, molecular studies have revealed the existence of cardiac specific stem cells, which start to multiply after injury and serve to repair, albeit in small amounts, the infarct area.
One way to augment endogenous repair processes is to administer stem cells from the bone marrow, which are known to produce various growth factors that assist the tissue-specific stem cell in mediating its activity. Another way is to physically extract the tissue specific stem cells, expand them outside of the body and reimplant them into the damaged area.
In a recent publication in the journal Circulation, Piero Anversa, M.D., director, Center for Regenerative Medicine, Departments of Anesthesia and Medicine and Cardiovascular Division, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston and Roberto Bolli, M.D., chief, cardiology, and director, Institute of Molecular Cardiology, University of Louisville, Kentucky, describe the use of cardiac specific stem cells in treatment of animals whose hearts of been damaged by the chemotherapeutic drug doxorubicin.
Doxorubicin is a chemotherapeutic drug that is mainly used in the treatment of breast, ovarian, lung, and thyroid cancers, as well as for neuroblastoma, lymphoma and leukemia. One of the main limiting factors to increasing the dose of doxorubicin to levels that can lead to tumor eradication is that it causes damage to the heart muscle, the myocardium.
In the published study, the investigators expanded the cardiac specific stem cells from rats, gave the rats high doses of doxorubicin and in some rats injected back cardiac specific stem cells, whereas other rats received control cells. The rats that received the cardiac specific stem cells had both preservation of cardiac function, and also regeneration of the damaged heart tissue. This is an important finding since the type of damage that doxorubicin does to the heart is different from other types of heart damage that have been studies, such as the damage that occurs after a heart attack. These data seem to suggest that stem cell therapy may be useful in a variety of injury situations.
"Theoretically, patients could be rescued using their own stem cells," said study author Dr. Piero Anversa, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Dr. Aversa is one of the original discoverers of the cardiac specific stem cell when he published experiments in dogs demonstrating multiplication of cells in the myocardium that seem to have ability to generate new tissue after damage (Linke et al. Stem cells in the dog heart are self-renewing, clonogenic, and multipotent and regenerate infarcted myocardium, improving cardiac function. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005 Jun 21;102(25):8966-71).
"A Phase 1 clinical trial using a similar procedure in people is already under way", said Dr. Roberto Bolli, chief of cardiology and director of the Institute of Molecular Cardiology at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, who is heading the trial. The FDA has approved a Phase I clinical trial using cardiac specific stem cells in 30 patients who have congestive heart failure due to disseminated atherosclerosis. "In the trial, participants’ cardiac tissue will be harvested, the stem cells isolated and then expanded in vitro from about 500 cells to 1 million cells over several weeks", Bolli explained. "Several months after the patient has undergone bypass surgery, the stem cells will be re-injected." A similar clinical trial is being performed at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles.
While the problems of tissue extraction (which is performed by an invasive procedure requiring biopsy of heart tissue) and cost of expansion are still formidable hurdles to widespread implementation, it is believed that the clinical evidence of a therapeutic response will open the door to other avenues of expanding tissue specific stem cells, such as administration of growth factors that can accomplish this without need for cell extraction outside of the body.