July 26, 2003
Bone Marrow Stem Cell Aging Key In Atherosclerosis

In a very important study Duke University Medical Center researchers have shown that youthful vascular progenitor stem cells will prevent the development of atherosclerosis in mice.

Age-Related Stem Cell Loss Prevents Artery Repair And Leads To Atherosclerosis

DURHAM, N.C. Aging has long been recognized as the worst risk factor for chronic ailments like atherosclerosis, which clogs arteries and leads to heart attacks and stroke. Yet, the mechanism by which aging promotes the clogging of arteries has remained an enigma.

Scientists at Duke University Medical Center have discovered that a major problem with aging is an unexpected failure of the bone marrow to produce progenitor cells that are needed to repair and rejuvenate arteries exposed to such environmental risks as smoking or caloric abuse.

The researchers demonstrated that an age-related loss of particular stem cells that continually repair blood vessel damage is critical to determining the onset and progression of atherosclerosis, which causes arteries to clog and become less elastic. When atherosclerosis affects arteries supplying the heart with oxygen and nutrients, it causes coronary artery disease and puts patients at a much higher risk for a heart attack.

The researchers' novel view of atherosclerosis, based on experiments in mice, constitutes a potential new avenue in the treatment of one of the leading causes of death and illness in the U.S., they said. Just as importantly, they continued, this loss of rejuvenating cells could be implicated in a broad range of age-related disorders, ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to chronic liver disease.

The results of the Duke research were posted early (July 14, 2003) on the website of the journal Circulation, (http://circ.ahajournals.org). The study will appear in the July 29, 2003, issue of the journal.

At issue is the role of stem cells, which are immature cells produced in the bone marrow that have the potential to mature into a variety of different cells. The Duke team examined specific stem cells known as "bone-marrow-derived vascular progenitor cells" (VPCs).

What we need is a way to take cells from our bodies and manipulate them into becoming youthful VPC stem cells. This will likely become a key treatment for reversing the process of aging.

The researchers believe that it might ultimately be possible to forestall or even prevent the development of atherosclerosis by injecting these cells into patients, or to induce the patient's own stem cells to differentiate into progenitor cells capable of arterial repair.

"Our studies indicate that the inability of bone marrow to produce progenitor cells which repair and rejuvenate the lining of the arteries drives the process of atherosclerosis and the formation of plaques in the arteries," said Duke cardiologist Pascal Goldschmidt, M.D., chairman of the Department of Medicine. "For a long time we've known that aging is an important risk factor for coronary artery disease, and we've also known that this disease can be triggered by smoking, bad diet, diabetes, high blood pressure and other factors.

"But if you compare someone who is over 60 with someone who is 20 with the same risk factors, there is obviously something else going on as well," he continued. "The possibility that stem cells may be involved is a completely new piece of the puzzle that had not been anticipated or appreciated before. These findings could be the clue to help us explain why atherosclerosis complications like heart attacks and strokes are almost exclusively diseases of older people."

Doris Taylor, Ph.D. a senior member of the research team, sees these findings leading researchers into new areas of investigation.

"For the first time we are beginning to an insight into how aging and heart disease fit together -- we've know they go hand-in-hand but we haven't understood why," she said. "Understanding that we either run out of progenitor cells or that they don't work as well is a big molecular clue to what might be going on in the whole aging process.

"We are excited that as we unravel the mechanisms of this process, we will be able to look deeper into heart and vascular disease, as well as other disease," she added. "These studies form the basis of future collaborations."

In their experiments, the Duke team used mice specially bred to develop severe atherosclerosis and high cholesterol levels. The researchers injected bone marrow cells from normal mice into these atherosclerosis-prone mice numerous times over a 14-week period. As a control, an equal of number of the same kind of atherosclerosis-prone mice went untreated.

After 14 weeks, the mice treated with the bone marrow cells had significantly fewer lesions in the aorta, despite no differences in cholesterol levels. Specifically, the researchers detected a 40-60 percent decrease in the number of lesions in the aorta, the main artery carrying blood from the heart.

Using specific staining techniques on the aortas, the researchers were able to determine that the donor bone marrow cells "homed in" on areas where atherosclerotic lesions are most common, especially where smaller vessel branches take off from larger vessels. These areas tend to experience "turbulence" of blood.

When the researchers examined the vessels under a microscope, it appeared that the bone marrow cells not only migrated to where they were needed most, but that they differentiated into the proper cell types. Some turned into endothelial cells lining the arteries, while others turned into the smooth muscle cells beneath the endothelium that help strengthen the arteries.

To further prove that the donor bone marrow cells were responsible for rejuvenating arteries, the scientists measured in the endothelial cells the lengths of structures known as telomeres at the end of chromosomes. They found that the telomeres in the endothelial cells were longer in the treated mice than the untreated mice. Over time, telomeres are known to shorten as the organism ages.

Note that researchers at Stanford have developed a technique for lengthening telomeres. However, in order to rejuvenate aged cells it is likely that additional modifications besides telomere lengthening will be needed. It would be desireable to have ways to select out cells that have less accumulated mutational damage to DNA so that the risks of cancer development in rejuvenated cells would be lowered. Cells that are restored to a state that allows them to divide more rapidly would be a cancer risk if they contained mutations to regulatory genes that control cell division.

The researchers also injected these atherosclerotic mice with donor cells from older mice as well as from younger, pre-atherosclerotic mice.

"We found that the bone marrow cells from the young mice had a nearly intact ability to prevent atherosclerosis, while the cells from the older mice did not," Goldschmidt explained. "This finding suggests that with aging, cells capable of preventing atherosclerosis that are normally present in the bone marrow became deficient in the older mice that had developed atherosclerosis."

Note that many of the risk factors of heart disease may exert their influence by causing a continual stream of injuries to arteries that essentially cause VPCs in the bone marrow to divide so many times that they get worn out. Every time a cell divides its telomeres get shorter. One effect of shortened telomeres is that they are an obstacle to normal cell division. So a diet and health habits that reduce the demand for VPCs may allow them to function for more years repairing arteries.

Once the repair cells from the marrow become deficient, inflammation develops and leads to increase in inflammation markers (such as CRP). By providing competent bone marrow cells, the investigators were able to suppress the inflammation and its blood markers.

While the direct use of stem cells as a treatment may be many years off, the researchers said it is likely that strategies currently used to reduce the risks for heart disease such as lifestyle modifications and/or different medications preserve the collection of these rejuvenating stem cells for a longer period of time, which delays the onset of atherosclerosis.

For Goldschmidt, a major question is whether researchers can somehow use these cells to restore the integrity of the circulatory system of patients who already have a lifetime of atheroslerosis.

"We need to look at the possibility of re-training stem cells that would otherwise be targeted to a different organ system to help repair the cardiovascular system," he said. "Another interesting question is whether rheumatoid arthritis, as an example of chronic inflammatory disorders, causes stem cell loss, since such arthritis is a risk factor for coronary artery disease. The chronic process of joint disease could consume stem cells that could otherwise be used for the repair of the cardiovascular system. We are just beginning to appreciate the links between stem cells and cardiovascular disease."

The research was supported by the National Heart Lung Blood Institute and the Stanley Sarnoff Endowment for Cardiovascular Science.

Other members of the Duke team include: Frederick Rauscher, M.D., Bryce Davis, Tao Wang, M.D., Ph.D., Priya Ramaswami, Anne Pippen, David Gregg, M.D., Brian Annex, M.D., and Chunming Dong, M.D.

This study demonstrates the importance of developing the ability to replenish stem cell reservoirs as a rejuvenation therapy. Progress on methods for how to take cells from the body and turn them into youthful VPCs is essential for extending life and avoiding heart disease and stroke.

This latest result is not that big of a surprise. See my previous post Aged Blood Stem Cells Indicator For Cardiovascular Disease Risk to see how this latest result is consistent with earlier research.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 July 26 06:45 PM  Aging Reversal

Patrick said at July 27, 2003 4:58 PM:

So should one have samples of your stem cells taken now, to be copied and reinjected when you are older?

Randall Parker said at July 27, 2003 6:41 PM:

Patrick, I think that is a non-trivial exercise. Those who donate bone marrow stem cells to relatives undergoing leukemia treatment actually get hostpitalized to do it and have to take a drug to encourage the production of the needed cells.

If you wanted to do it you'd have to pay for the costs yourself and find a doctor and hospital that would be willing. Plus, they'd have to be willing to store it.

My guess is that within 20 years there will be ways to produce rejuvenated cells starting with one's own regular adult cells.

This is the sort of treatment that might even be useful for some people to undergo in their 40s or 50s. Sure hope they figure out how to do it sooner rather than later.

Patrick said at July 28, 2003 7:56 PM:

I was mostly joking. But it would be really annoying to reach the age of 65 and be told that you COULD be rejuvenated, if only you had frozen some marrow 30 years ago.

Of course then you would want to have a clone so you could steal some of his marrow and things would get even more complicated...

Grady said at September 4, 2003 8:27 AM:

Expanding progenitor cells from bone marrow in vitro is getting easier and easier to do, and re-infusion of autologous cells has been done, with no inflammation problems, several times recently. www.circulationaha.org has a recent paper.

zhaoxiong zhou said at October 5, 2005 11:58 PM:

now i make it clear more and more that bone marrows are closely related to our health,at least,will benefit to arterial repair.when bone marrow get old, it become yellow,we also get old as well.so if you can rejunevate your bone marrow,you can also make you younger.my question is how to identify these cell you get from bone marrow are functioned or incompetent.

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