UMN researchers provide novel insight toward treating muscular dystrophy

New research from the University of Minnesota’s Medical School may lead to future therapies for muscular dystrophy.

by Gwiwon Jason Nam

A recent University of Minnesota Medical School study found new discoveries in regenerative muscle cells that could be useful for future treatments of muscular dystrophy.

The study, released in mid-February, found that stem cells could repair muscle cells in mice affected by muscular dystrophy while simultaneously forming new, more mature stem cells. Researchers on the study hope to eventually use the findings to treat muscular dystrophy in humans.

“In order to make the muscle using embryonic stem cells, we engineer these cells by introducing a piece of DNA,” said Alessandro Magli, contributor to the study and assistant professor of medicine at the University. 

When the researchers re-examined the injected stem cells several weeks after they were injected into the mice, they saw the cells changed how they behave after being exposed to the mice’s muscle cells.

“We are the first lab that re-isolated the cells from the injected muscles and demonstrated that these cells change their molecular characteristics,” said Tania Incitti, a lead researcher of the study and postdoctoral associate in the medical school. “It has been demonstrated that if we inject these … cells inside an animal model, it can regenerate new muscle.”

Rita Perlingeiro, a supervisor of the research and professor in the Department of Medicine, said their new findings show that the injected cells become much more mature in the adult muscle environment, which is reassuring and explains the regenerative properties.

“What we didn’t know was the exact molecular composition of these cells. So we wanted to fully characterize these cells,” Incitti said.

Researchers recognized different cell types generated in the dish from embryonic stem cells were immature in nature. Although the cells used were immature in the dish, the research team found they performed much more effectively than an embryonic cell when inside an animal. This was the result of the cells creating more muscle and allowing that new muscle to repair itself.

“While at the beginning, our cells were indistinguishable from embryonic, once they’ve been for one month in a muscle, they completely change their nature,” Incitti said. 

Besides showing the cells are able to make new muscle and new muscle stem cells, the research also found the cells injected into the muscle interact with the adult muscle, providing the cells with the cues to change and become more mature than they were in the dish.

“This provides novel insights on the cells that could make new muscle,” Incitti said. “Because it means that these cells are fully able to provide muscle, because they change and they respond to the environment of the muscle.”