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Common Virus Fortifies Stem Cells, Improves Their Survival

Stem Cells (NSF)

Stem Cells (National Science Foundation)

Medical researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and others devised a method for improving the survival of stem cells in the body, making them more effective therapeutic agents. The team led by Graca Almeida-Porada of Wake Forest’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine published their findings last week in the online journal PLoS One.

Almeida-Porada’s team that included colleagues from Institut de Recherches Cliniques de Montreal and University of Nevada in Reno re-engineered mesenchymal stem cells found in bone marrow, peripheral and cord blood and fetal liver and lung tissue. Mesenchymal stem cells have the ability to travel to and help heal damaged tissue, but are susceptble to attack by the part of the body’s immune system that causes inflammation and rejects transplanted organs.

In lab experiments, Almeida-Porada and colleagues tested the human cytomegalovirus (HCMV), a virus from the herpes family that affects 50 to 80 percent of the population. For most people, the cytomegalovirus evades the immune systems and causes no symptoms, but can be a danger to women who are pregnant or people with weakened immune systems.

The researchers aimed to take advantage of the virus’s ability to evade the immune system. “Our strategy,” says Almeida-Porada, “was to modify the cells to produce the same proteins as the HCMV virus so they could escape death and help modulate inflammation and promote healing.”

The team started with mesenchymal stem cells from purified fetal liver tissue, then engineered the stem cells to  produce specific proteins expressed by the human cytomegalovirus. This process made it possible for the researchers to identify the most effective protein at increasing cell survival — the US2 protein — that made the cells less recognizable to the immune system and increased cell survival by 59 percent.

“Next,” says Almeida-Porada, “we hope to evaluate the healing potential of these cells in conditions such as bowel disease, traumatic brain injury, and human organ transplant.”

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