Synthetic cardiac stem cells could be foundation for 'off-the-shelf' treatments

Blue stem cells
Synthetic stem cells reduce the risks of natural stem cell therapies, including tumor growth and immune rejection.

Stem cell therapies are a promising treatment for diseased or dysfunctional tissue, but they can cause side effects. Scientists in North Carolina and Zhengzhou, China have created a synthetic cardiac stem cell that they believe could function like a natural stem cell, but with fewer risks.

Stem cell therapy, also known as regenerative medicine, involves the implantation of stem cells into diseased tissue. It is based on the theory that stem cells, which can be “programmed” to become any type of cell, can help the body repair or replace damaged tissues.

But the treatment also carries some risk: Stem cells could grow uncontrollably or differentiate into different types of cells than intended. They may also provoke an unwanted immune response.

The researchers, led by Ke Cheng, a professor at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, created a cell-mimicking microparticle from PLGA, a biodegradable and biocompatible polymer. Then they added growth factor proteins collected from cultured human heart stem cells and coated it all in a cardiac stem cell membrane.

In vitro studies showed both the microparticle and cardiac stem cells stimulated the growth of heart muscle cells, according to a statement. And in a mouse model, the microparticle bound to and promoted the growth of cardiac tissue after a heart attack, similar to how natural cardiac stem cells act. The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

“The synthetic cells operate much the same way a deactivated vaccine works,” Cheng said in the statement. “Their membranes allow them to bypass the immune response, bind to cardiac tissue, release the growth factors and generate repair, but they cannot amplify by themselves. So you get the benefits of stem cell therapy without risks.”

In addition to reducing risks associated with stem cell therapy, synthetic cells may prove to be more durable. They can withstand freezing and thawing and do not need to be derived from a patient’s own cells, according to the statement.

“We are hoping that this may be a first step toward a truly off-the-shelf stem cell product that would enable people to receive beneficial stem cell therapies when they’re needed, without costly delays,” Cheng said.