SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.—Joined by scientists from VistaGen Therapeutics here, a team of leading Canadian, American and British medical researchers have used embryonic stem (ES) cells differentiation cultures to successfully identify, grow and study the earliest cell destined to form the human heart. This novel cardiac stem cell is able to produce all three types of cells important to the cardiovascular system. The research was published today in the scientific journal Nature, in a paper entitled, "Human cardiovascular progenitor cells develop from a KDR embryonic-stem-cell-derived population."
SAN FRANCISCO—Hoping to discover new drugs to treat heart disease, liver disease and diabetes, VistaGen Therapeutics Inc. announced last month a broad embryonic stem (ES) cell research alliance with Toronto's University Health Network and its affiliate, the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine.
The new arrangement builds on VistaGen's 10-year relationship with Dr. Gordon Keller, one of the world's leading stem cell researchers and the director of the McEwen Centre, by expanding the company's existing strategic licenses to Keller's prior ES cell intellectual property.
VistaGen's stem cell technology platform enables its scientists and research partners to direct the development of ES cells into a broad range of functional human cells, including heart, liver, nerve and insulin-producing beta-islet cells, in a commercially efficient and reproducible process. Using Keller's leading-edge ES cell technologies, VistaGen officials say the collaboration seeks to create advanced techniques to differentiate ES cells into mature cardiac, liver and pancreatic beta-islet cells, focusing first on cardiomyocites.
The inability of heart muscle to regenerate in the body or the laboratory is a major obstacle to the clinical treatment of cardiac infarction and the development of laboratory models of the heart for drug screening and basic science. Cardiomyocytes derived from ES cells could be useful in restoring heart function after myocardial infarction or in heart failure.
"Gordon's group has been developing some very interesting technology, and we want to really push the research side of that with Gordon to find more efficient ways of developing cardiomyocites," says Dr. Ralph Snodgrass, president and CEO of VistaGen.
"The ability to use human cardiomyocites in a predictable manner is something the pharmaceutical industry has not done in the past, but we're getting to a level now where we can generate sufficient numbers of these. We expect to gain a better understanding of the differentiation of cardiomyocites that develop from embryonic stem cells."
Building on his expertise in developing strategies to direct differentiation of ES cells to different lineages, Keller says the team will develop technologies allowing them to freeze the cells and ship them to colleagues, who could then apply drugs to the cells. Current culture systems are inadequate for that kind of research.
"What we grow now is more fetal-like in the dish, but technology is now becoming so widespread that we can try to drive these cells a bit further to maturity, allowing us to approximate an adult heart cell," Keller notes. "The excitement here is that for the first time ever, we will have an unlimited and renewable source of human heart cells and we will be able to determine what different drugs do to them."
Snodgrass says team will begin performing similar work using liver and pancreatic beta-islet cells by Fall 2008.
"All three are critical research areas because they are all critical in pharmaceutical development," Snodgrass says. "Our team shares the vision that we are at the beginning of an exciting new era where innovative stem cell technologies will give us the tools and approaches to accelerate the discovery and development of safer, more effective new drugs and clinical applications that will make a difference in the lives of millions worldwide."