Lee et al Stem Cells 28:1099
Stroke is caused by blocked circulation to parts of the brain usually as a result of a blood clot. Outcomes of stroke are generally proportional to the length of time the circulation was blocked and to the amount of brain tissue injury and death. Although the introduction of “clot busters” has improved outcomes in these patients, substantially morbidity and mortality still occurs. Numerous pharmaceutical approaches have been attempted in the treatment of stroke, both from the perspective of inhibiting tissue damage, and more recently trying to stimulate regeneration of injured brain tissue. To date clinical progress in this area has been relatively insignificant. In fact, in the pharmaceutical industry the condition of stroke has been referred to as a “graveyard for biotechs”.
One potentially promising treatment for stroke would be to augment the body’s own repair processes through activation of stem cells that are either pre-existing in the body, or through administration of stem cells either directly into the damaged brain tissue or areas associated with the damaged brain tissue. Rationale for this includes observations that stem cells from the bone marrow called endothelial progenitor cells are known to enter circulation in patients with stroke. A study from Dunac et al in France demonstrated that patients who have a higher degree of stem cells in circulation after a stroke have a better neurological outcome in comparison to patients who have lower numbers of circulating stem cells. In rats which are given a stroke experimental by ligation of one of the arteries that feeds the brain, called the middle cerebral artery, administration of human or rat stem cells reduces the size of brain damage, as well as causes regeneration of new neurons. Additionally, animal studies have demonstrated that administration of stem cells causes improved behavior as compared to animals receiving control cells or saline.
One reason why there exists a belief in the field that bone marrow derived cells may be capable of generating new neurons is that in female recipients of bone marrow transplant nerve cells have been found that express the Y-chromosome (Weimann et al. Contribution of transplanted bone marrow cells to purkinje neurons in human adult brains Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 100:2088).
In a recent paper (Lee et al. A long-term follow-up study of intravenous autologous mesenchymal stem cell transplantation in patients with ischemic stroke. Stem Cells 28:1099) a group from Korea reported what to date is the largest clinical trial of stem cells in stroke. The investigators used mesenchymal stem cells generated from the bone marrow of the stroke patients. These cells are believed to be capable of generating new neurons, as well as producing growth factors that stimulate the brain to heal itself. Mesenchymal stem cells are currently used in clinical trials in the US and internationally for treatment of graft versus host disease, heart failure, and critical limb ischemia (an advanced form of peripheral artery disease that causes 100-200,000 amputations per year). Advantages of mesenchymal stem cells include: a) ability to be expanded in tissue culture; b) Well-known safety profile; and c) Ability to use between individuals without need for matching.
In the study discussed, the investigators selected 52 patients with a defined type of stroke (non-lacunar infarction within the middle cerebral artery territory). Patients were selected 7 days after the stroke in order to have a standardized level of dysfunction. It was previously published that before 7 days the patient may have a sudden increase or decrease in neurological function, but after 7 days post-stroke the neurological function remains stable.
The investigators extracted 5 ml of bone marrow from 16 patients and expanded the mesenchymal stem cells over a 4 week period. The mesenchymal stem cells were defined as cells expressing the markers CD105 (SH-2) and SH-4. Cells were grown as adherent cells in media containing fetal calf serum. The 16 patients received two administrations of 50 million cells intravenously spread apart by a week.
Patients were followed for an average of 117 weeks, with some patients followed as long as 5-years after the stroke. There was a statistically significant difference in overall survival in the patients that received the mesenchymal stem cells as compared to controls. Specifically, 4 of the 16 patients who received the mesenchymal stem cells passed away during the follow-up period as compared to 21 of the 36 control patients.
In studies of embryonic or fetal stem cells, one of the major concerns is development of tumors. This stems from the fact that administration of embryonic stem cells into immune deficient animals causes tumors called teratomas, and in humans there is at least one documented case of a brain tumor developing in a patient who received fetal derived stem cells. Of the patients administered mesenchymal stem cells, no tumors were detected. This is important because this study has one of the longest follow up periods.
Functional improvements as quantified by the modified Rankin Score were noted in patients receiving stem cells, whereas controls overall suffered a decline in function. Specifically, function was assessed at a median of 3.5 years in the control group and 3.2 years in the mesenchymal stem cell treated group. Function was assessed by doctors where were “blinded” to which patient received stem cells and which patient was in the control group. In the control group 13 of 26 patients had a negative rank, which indicates an improved functional outcome for each patient, whereas 21 patients had a positive rank, which means worse outcome. In contrast, in the treatment group 11 of the 16 patients had a negative rank. The difference between groups reached statistical significance.
In 9 patients of the group that received stem cells, a correlation was studied between the cytokine SDF-1 and functional outcome. Functional outcome was determined both by the modified Rankin score as well as by the Barthel index. A positive correlation was found between levels of SDF-1 at the time of MSC treatment and functional outcome in the patients studied. This protein is known to be involved in recruiting stem cells to the site of injury. Given that in this study the stem cells were administered intravenously and not locally (eg by sterotactic injection), it would be logical that a correlation exist between chemotactic signaling and improved outcome. Currently there are companies such as Juvantis, that are administering plasmids expressing SDF-1 in order to induce homing of endogenous stem cells into cardiac infarcts. It is interesting that the same priniciple may be valid in situations of ischemic stroke. To date no studies have been performed clinically using co-administration of stem cells and SDF-1, however, myoblasts transfected with SDF-1 have been used in a clinical trial in Jordan by the company BioHeart for treatment of heart failure.
One other interesting finding of the study besides lack of ectopic tissue or tumor formation is that no adverse effects were associated with using stem cells grown in fetal calf serum. There has been concern in the literature, particularly the academic literature, that fetal calf serum may induce autoimmunity or sensitization upon second MSC administration. This did not appear to be the case.