Stem cells have the potential to become an effective diagnostic tool singling out those susceptible of atherosclerosis, say researchers. These cells could also help to predict regeneration of heart cells following a heart attack.
This application adds to the growing interest in stem cells, where their ability to differentiate into other cell types raises the prospect they could be used to treat diseases, for example by creating new insulin-producing tissue for diabetes.
Implanting stem cells into a damaged heart so they can grow new healthy tissue is another example of stem cells' adaptability.
Researchers think that clinical applications can be hypothesised by virtue of functional deficits these cells display as a consequence of pathological conditions such as diabetes, hypercholesterolemia or smoking - all known risk factors for atherosclerosis.
"This is a promising perspective," said Johannes Waltenberger from the Academic Hospital in Maastricht and President of the 3rd EMVBM, "but it is not one of immediate application."
"We have to bear in mind that these cells are not homogeneous. Some of them are still completely undifferentiated. Some are fully committed while others are in between the two extremes."
However, their functional contribution depends on a number of factors including the ability to adhere to the endothelium, to migrate and proliferate, and to maintain their viability for the time needed.
For example, individuals at risk for cardiovascular diseases have more leukocytes than healthy ones. In a similar way, the diabetic condition worsens the functions of the so-called Endothelial Progenitor Cells (EPCs), and inhibits the migration of the monocytes that contribute to vascular repair and collateral growth in case of injury.
"We know that they can provide functional benefits, for example, on the infarcted heart. But we still ignore their precise mechanism of action and we do not know, yet, which subgroup of cells does this job," said Waltenberger.
Diagnostic perspectives based on the analysis of the biochemical characteristics of these "uncommitted" cells were presented at the Second Annual European Vascular Genomics Network (EVGN - www.evgn.org) Meeting which is taking place in Hamburg in parallel to the 3rd European Meeting on Vascular Biology and Medicine (www.emvbm.org).
"We heard more than 300 presentations where basic science and clinical research were very well balanced," commented Waltenberger, "and we experienced a successful integration at different levels: among young scientists and senior researchers, but also between biology and medicine."
The two joint Meetings provided us with a very stimulating environment, demonstrating that European groups have significantly progressed. I have no doubt that the field of Vascular Biology and Medicine will achieve important and relevant results in the coming years.
While in a fairly embryonic stage at present, the market for stem cell-based therapies and tissue engineering is tipped to grow to around $10bn in 2013, according to a recently published report from Visiongain.