We have undertaken an extensive series of studies to delineate the radiation response of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) and human neural stem cells (hNSCs) both in vitro and in vivo. These studies are important because radiotherapy is a frontline treatment for primary and secondary (metastatic) brain tumors. While radiotherapy is quite beneficial, it is limited by the tolerance of normal tissue to radiation injury. At clinically relevant exposures, patients often develop variable degrees of cognitive dysfunction that manifest as impaired learning and memory, and that have pronounced adverse effects on quality of life. Thus, our studies have been designed to address this serious complication of cranial irradiation.
We have now found that transplanted human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) can rescue radiation-induced cognitive impairment in athymic rats, providing the first evidence that such cells can ameliorate radiation-induced normal-tissue damage in the brain. Four months following head-only irradiation and hESC transplantation, the stem cells were found to have migrated toward specific regions of the brain known to support the development of new brain cells throughout life. Cells migrating toward these specialized neural regions were also found to develop into new brain cells. Cognitive analyses of these animals revealed that the rats who had received stem cells performed better in a standard test of brain function which measures the rats’ reactions to novelty. The data suggests that transplanted hESCs can rescue radiation-induced deficits in learning and memory. Additional work is underway to determine whether the rats’ improved cognitive function was due to the functional integration of transplanted stem cells or whether these cells supported and helped repair the rats’ existing brain cells.
The application of stem cell therapies to reduce radiation-induced normal tissue damage is still in its infancy. Our finding that transplanted hESCs can rescue radiation-induced cognitive impairment is significant in this regard, and provides evidence that similar types of approaches hold promise for ameliorating normal-tissue damage throughout other target tissues after irradiation.