The acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a clinical complication of severe acute lung injury (ALI) in humans, is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in critically ill patients. ALI is characterized by disruption of the lung alveolar–capillary membrane barrier and resultant pulmonary edema associated with a proteinaceous alveolar exudate. Current specific treatment strategies for ALI/ARDS are lacking. We hypothesized that mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), with or without transfection with the vasculoprotective gene angiopoietin 1 (ANGPT1) would have beneficial effects in experimental ALI in mice.
Methods and Findings
Syngeneic MSCs with or without transfection with plasmid containing the human ANGPT1 gene (pANGPT1) were delivered through the right jugular vein of mice 30 min after intratracheal instillation of lipopolysaccharide (LPS) to induce lung injury. Administration of MSCs significantly reduced LPS-induced pulmonary inflammation, as reflected by reductions in total cell and neutrophil counts in bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid (53%, 95% confidence interval [CI] 7%–101%; and 60%, CI 4%–116%, respectively) as well as reducing levels of proinflammatory cytokines in both BAL fluid and lung parenchymal homogenates. Furthermore, administration of MSCs transfected with pANGPT1 resulted in nearly complete reversal of LPS-induced increases in lung permeability as assessed by reductions in IgM and albumin levels in BAL (96%, CI 6%–185%; and 74%, CI 23%–126%, respectively). Fluorescently tagged MSCs were detected in the lung tissues by confocal microscopy and flow cytometry in both naïve and LPS-injured animals up to 3 d.
Treatment with MSCs alone significantly reduced LPS-induced acute pulmonary inflammation in mice, while administration of pANGPT1-transfected MSCs resulted in a further improvement in both alveolar inflammation and permeability. These results suggest a potential role for cell-based ANGPT1 gene therapy to treat clinical ALI/ARDS.
Using a mouse model of acute respiratory distress syndrome, Duncan Stewart and colleagues report that rescue with mesenchymal stem cells expressing human angiopoietin 1 can avert lung injury from lipopolysaccharide.
Critically ill people who have had an injury to their lungs, for example through pneumonia, trauma, or an immune response to infection, may end up developing a serious complication in the lung termed acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). In ARDS, inflammation develops in the lung, and fluid builds up in the alveoli (the air sacs resembling “bunches of grapes” at the ends of the network of tubes in the lung). This buildup of fluid prevents oxygen from being carried efficiently from air into the blood; the individual consequently experiences problems breathing and can develop further serious complications, which contribute significantly to the burden of illness among people in intensive care units. The death rate among individuals who do develop ARDS is very high, upward of 30%. Normally, individuals with ARDS are given extra oxygen, and may need a machine to help them breathe; treatments also focus on addressing the underlying causes in each particular patient. However, currently there are very few specific treatments that address ARDS itself.
Why Was This Study Done?
The researchers here wanted to work toward new treatment options for individuals with ARDS. One possible approach involves cells known as mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). These cells are typically found in the bone marrow and have a property shared by very few other cell types in the body; they are able to carry on dividing and renewing themselves, and can eventually develop into many other types of cell. The researchers already knew that MSCs could become incorporated into injured lungs in mice and develop there into the tissue layers lining the lung. Some interesting work had also been done on a protein called angiopoeitin 1 (ANGPT1), which seemed to play a role in protecting against inflammation in blood vessels. Therefore, there was a strong rationale for carrying out experiments in mice to see if MSCs engineered to produce the ANGPT1 protein might “rescue” lung injury in mice. These experiments would be an initial step toward developing possible new treatments for humans with ARDS.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers used a mouse model to mimic the human ARDS condition. This involved injecting the windpipe of experimental mice with lipopolysaccharide (a substance normally found on the outer surface of bacteria that brings about an immune reaction in the lung). After 30 minutes, the mice were then injected with either salt solution (as a control), the MSCs, or MSCs producing the ANGPT1 protein. The researchers then looked at markers of lung inflammation, the appearance of the lungs under a microscope, and whether the injected MSCs had become incorporated into the lung tissue.
The lipopolysaccharide brought about a large increase in the number of inflammatory cells in the lung fluid, which was reduced in the mice given MSCs. Furthermore, in mice given the MSCs producing ANGPT1 protein, the number of inflammatory cells was reduced to a level similar to that of mice that had not been given lipopolysaccharide. When the researchers looked at the appearance under the microscope of lungs from mice that had been given lipopolysaccharide, they saw signs of inflammation and fluid coming out into the lung air spaces. These signs were reduced among both mice treated with MSCs and those treated with MSCs producing ANGPT1. The researchers also measured the “leakiness” of the lung tissues in lipopolysaccharide-treated mice; MSCs seemed to reduce the leakiness to some extent, and the lungs of mice treated with MSCs producing ANGPT1 were no more leaky than those of mice that had never been injected with lipopolysaccharide. Finally, the MSCs were seen to be incorporated into lung tissue by three days after injection, but after that were lost from the lung.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Previous research done by the same group had shown that fibroblasts producing ANGPT1 could prevent lung injury in rats later given lipopolysaccharide. The experiments reported here go a step further than this, and suggest that MSCs producing ANGPT1 can “rescue” the condition of mouse lungs that had already been given lipopolysaccharide. In addition, treatment with MSCs alone also produced beneficial effects. This opens up a possible new treatment strategy for ARDS in humans. However, it should be emphasized that the animal model used here is not a precise parallel of ARDS in humans, and that more research remains to be done before human studies of this sort could be considered.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040269.
Medline Plus entry on acute respiratory distress syndrome, providing basic information about what ARDS is, its effects, and how it is currently managed
ARDS Network from the US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health; the site provides frequently asked questions about ARDS as well as a list of clinical trials conducted by the network
Information about stem cells from the US National Institutes of Health, including information about the potential uses of stem cells
Wikipedia page about mesenchymal stem cells (note: Wikipedia is an internet encyclopedia anyone can edit)