Stem cell performance enhanced with steroids

April 10, 2014

Harvard stem cell scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have pioneered a method using steroids to make mighty stem cells, increasing their usefulness for potential cell therapies.

Unlike sports, where performance-enhancing drugs are banned, in the cell therapy field, approaches that ‘pump up’ the potency of cells to make them more effective are being used. Harvard Stem Cell Institute Principal Faculty member, Jeffrey Karp, PhD, and postdoctoral fellow James Ankrum, PhD, developed a way to significantly and uniformly enhance stem cell performance by treating cells with a commonly used class of drugs called glucocorticoid steroids. Their work appears in Scientific Reports.

“Stem cells have the potential to treat nearly every disease imaginable from heart disease and osteoporosis to arthritis and multiple sclerosis,” said Karp. “But not all stem cells are equal and often cells that are infused into patients lack the required potency to have an impact. Without highly potent cells, high doses are needed, making stem cell therapy challenging, expensive and ineffective.”

The researchers treated mesenchymal stem cells (a type of stem cell that gives rise to the bone marrow tissue) with steroids to greatly increase their expression of an important anti-inflammatory factor, making the stem cells more potent compared to non-treated cells. Observing that the cells were most potent when they were being constantly exposed to steroids, the researchers then equipped the cells with microscopic reservoirs of the drug inside them, giving them continuous access to the steroids.

“We then placed these steroid-boosted stem cells in the presence of inflamed immune cells and saw that these enhanced cells were twice as potent as unmodified cells at stopping the inflammatory process,” said Ankrum. “Our approach enables fine tuning of cell potency and control following transplantation, which could lead to more successful cell-based therapies.”

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (HL095722), Department of Defense, Movember Prostate Cancer Foundation Challenge Award, and Hugh Hampton Young Memorial Fellowship.

Cited: Performance-enhanced mesenchymal stem cells via intracellular delivery of steroids. Scientific Reports. April 10, 2014.

Story provided by Brigham and Women's Hospital.