The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has recently invested $11.6 million into stem cell based regenerative research being conducted at the Temple University School of Medicine. Given the increased incidence of heart disease in recent years, stem cell based treatments are emerging as an optimal method of treatment, though there are still a few hurdles these treatments must overcome in order to be at their optimal effectiveness. Many of the challenges with current stem cell treatments for heart disease are due to the age of the patients and their age-related ailments. Obtaining stem cells for treatment at an older age reduces the stem cells’ efficacy - compared to younger cells, and also impacts the yield; often resulting in an insufficient number of cells for treatment.
In a recently published study at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, stem cells obtained from younger subjects and injected into aging subjects resulted in improved heart function, and an overall increase in stamina and activity levels. As we age, our heart muscles begin to stiffen, causing fluid to build up in the heart and preventing the muscles from relaxing properly. This is similar to hearts of patients who have experienced heart failure with ejection fraction. Therefore, this research is pivotal in treating both heart failure and age-related deterioration. In an animal model, mice that received the progenitor cells (a more specified type of stem cell) obtained from younger mice showed multifaceted beneficial results. Not only did the older mice display improved heart function, but their activity levels increased, and their telomeres, which shorten as cells age, were regenerated. The implications of this research show that though the stem cells were injected into the heart, beneficial effects were seen all over the body, in addition to showing that younger stem cells are in fact far more proliferative than older cells.
Researchers at the University of California Irvine, in collaboration with the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology, have found that consuming a low-calorie diet can prompt the body’s stem cells to remain active and repair age-related wear and tear more efficiently. A low-calorie intake has shown to maintain a youthful circadian rhythm, or biological clock, which is known to regulate and direct stem cell function toward either maintaining homeostasis (equilibrium in the body) or active repair. As we age, our bodies allocate stem cells for various purposes and these cells lose their potency from lack of action, but the reduction in caloric intake reinvigorates these stem cells. In an animal model, researchers found that older stem cells use energy less efficiently compared to younger cells. However, reducing the caloric intake allowed the older cells to reset their biological rhythm, which allowed them to process energy as efficiently as younger cells and regain their youthful potency to make repairs, rather than just maintain the body.
Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) School of Medicine have pinpointed the biological processes that lead to the differentiation of skin stem cells into follicles that grow hair. As people age, the ability to regenerate skin cells declines and therefore, the follicles produce less and less hair. Utilizing a combination of bioinformatics and molecular screenings, the researchers studied the differentiation of stem cells into hair follicles of newborn mice, honing in on genetic factors and environmental cell signals this process entails. The process was then successfully implemented when applied to adult mice that lacked hair by introducing the necessary factors that signal stem cells to differentiate into organoids that will grow hair.
Billionaires Bill Gates and Steve Branson have joined Cargill [one of the largest agricultural companies in the world] in investing in Memphis Meats, which has been working to bring accessible, ethical and cruelty free meat to the market. Memphis Meats has successfully grown beef, chicken and duck meat from the animals’ stem cells, providing the same taste and nutrition without any harm to animals. By programming the cells to become muscle tissue, the company has been able to create lab-grown meat with all the biological components of real meat. The cultured meat is said to look and taste exactly like the real deal, but could be even more salubrious for consumption, given that it bypasses the hormones and the unhealthy diets that livestock is often fed.
Collaborating researchers from the University of California Davis Medical Center and the Second Xiangya Hospital of the Central-South University (Hunan, China) are developing an autologous [the patient’s own] stem cell protocol to aid the rehabilitation process following a hip fracture. With over 300,000 hip fractures in the US alone, and with many patients failing to return to an independent lifestyle following the fracture, the need for more effective rehabilitation methodologies is great; the mortality rate following a fracture is high as well. The team of researchers is focusing on the application of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) to facilitate the healing process and get patients back on their feet. When tested in an animal model, autologous MSCs were engineered to express a growth factor called bFGF, which directs the differentiation of these stem cells into osteoblasts that will later become bone. When injected back into the subject with a hip fracture, this growth factor also successfully promoted vascularization around the fracture site and the ossification of the bone.
Researchers in India have used an autologous stem cell treatment in a pilot pre-clinical study to completely reverse the adverse effects of a quickly progressing case of MS (multiple sclerosis). MS is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks its own nervous system by breaking down the myelin sheath on neurons. Proper myelination is responsible for faster transmission of nerve signals and aggressive forms of MS cause patients to lose motor functions in their limbs, as well as experience memory and cognition problems. The patient in this study was experiencing a particularly degenerative form of MS, with multiple relapses over the years, and he began losing his ability to walk. After receiving an injection of his own mesenchymal stem cells (the same type of stem cells found in teeth), as well as a monitored diet and physical therapy, the patient experienced immediate improvement. He was soon able to walk and even run again, which he had been unable to do for over five years.
Researchers from Megakaryon of Japan are using stem cells to derive platelet cells, which are regularly in short supply due to a lack of blood donations. Platelet cells assist in clotting and help stop bleeding in surgery and trauma patients. However, because these cells are derived from blood, not only does a shortage exist, but their shelf-life is a mere 4 days, as they cannot be frozen and stored. The protocol involves the expanding and differentiating stem cells into platelet cells. These manufactured cells have a shelf-life of up to 2 weeks and can be administered to patients in need. The new method has the potential to eliminate the need for blood donations.
Researchers at the University of Chicago have developed a skin graft utilizing engineered stem cells that can trigger the release of insulin and successfully regulate blood sugar levels, as well as prevent weight gain when consuming a high-fat diet. This revolutionary treatment could eliminate the pain and discomfort from current methods of monitoring and regulating blood sugar through injections. The stem cells in the graft were engineered, with the use of CRISPR, to release a hormone that mimics glucagon (called GLP-1) and trigger the pancreas to release insulin. GLP-1 is also shown to combat obesity due to its appetite suppressing properties. The engineered stem cells formed into a layer of skin tissue and were applied to the subjects. In animal models, 80% of the diabetic mice receiving the engineered skin graft exhibited the release of insulin following food consumption resulting in lower blood glucose levels and reduced body weight.
Researchers at the UNC School of Medicine and North Carolina State University have created a method of obtaining and culturing stem cells to treat chronic and potentially fatal lung inflammation. Chronic inflammation in the lungs causes the formation of scar tissue that inhibits proper oxygenation of vital organs, like the heart and brain. Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are some of the most common results of chronic inflammation. With many IPF patients not surviving past 5 years following diagnosis, this treatment could significantly prolong their lives. The treatment is done by isolating a patient’s own lung stem cells through biopsy, then culturing and expanding them to clinically relevant numbers. In an animal model, the subjects were induced to have scarring and inflammation in the lungs to mimic IPF in humans. Those that were injected with their own stem cells showed significant improvement in lung function compared to those that received a placebo.