Neuromuscular disease is a very broad term that encompasses many diseases and aliments that either directly, via intrinsic muscle pathology, or indirectly, via nerve pathology, impair the functioning of the muscles. Neuromuscular diseases affect the muscles and/or their nervous control and lead to problems with movement. Many are genetic; sometimes, an immune system disorder can cause them. As they have no cure, the aim of clinical treatment is to improve symptoms, increase mobility and lengthen life. Some of them affect the anterior horn cell, and are classified as acquired (e.g. poliomyelitis) and hereditary (e.g. spinal muscular atrophy) diseases. SMA is a genetic disease that attacks nerve cells, called motor neurons, in the spinal cord. As a consequence of the lost of the neurons, muscles weakness becomes to be evident, affecting walking, crawling, breathing, swallowing and head and neck control. Neuropathies affect the peripheral nerve and are divided into demyelinating (e.g. leucodystrophies) and axonal (e.g. porphyria) diseases. Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) is the most frequent hereditary form among the neuropathies and its characterized by a wide range of symptoms so that CMT-1a is classified as demyelinating and CMT-2 as axonal (Marchesi & Pareyson, 2010). Defects in neuromuscular junctions cause infantile and non-infantile Botulism and Myasthenia Gravis (MG). MG is a antibody-mediated autoimmune disorder of the neuromuscular junction (NMJ) (Drachman, 1994; Meriggioli & Sanders, 2009). In most cases, it is caused by pathogenic autoantibodies directed towards the skeletal muscle acetylcholine receptor (AChR) (Patrick & Lindstrom, 1973) while in others, non-AChR components of the postsynaptic muscle endplate, such as the muscle-specific receptor tyrosine kinase (MUSK), might serve as targets for the autoimmune attack (Hoch et al., 2001). Although the precise origin of the autoimmune response in MG is not known, genetic predisposition and abnormalities of the thymus gland such as hyperplasia and neoplasia could have an important role in the onset of the disease (Berrih et al., 1984; Roxanis et al., 2001).
Several diseases affect muscles: they are classified as acquired (e.g. dermatomyositis and polymyositis) and hereditary (e.g. myotonic disorders and myopaties) forms. Among the myopaties, muscular dystrophies are characterized by the primary wasting of skeletal muscle, caused by mutations in the proteins that form the link between the cytoskeleton and the basal lamina (Cossu & Sampaolesi, 2007). Mutations in the dystrophin gene cause severe form of hereditary muscular diseases; the most common are Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) and Becker Muscular Dystrophy (BMD). DMD patients suffer for complete lack of dystrophin that causes progressive degeneration, muscle wasting and death into the second/third decade of life. Beside, BMD patients show a very mild phenotype, often asymptomatic primarily due to the expression of shorter dystrophin mRNA transcripts that maintain the coding reading frame. DMD patients muscles show absence of dystrophin and presence of endomysial fibrosis, small fibers rounded and muscle fiber degeneration/regeneration. Untreated, boys with DMD become progressively weak during their childhood and stop ambulation at a mean age of 9 years, later with corticosteroid treatment (12/13 yrs). Proximal weakness affects symmetrically the lower (such as quadriceps and gluteus) before the upper extremities, with progression to the point of wheelchair dependence. Eventually distal lower and then upper limb weakness occurs. Weakness of neck flexors is often present at the beginning, and most patients with DMD have never been able to jump. Wrist and hand muscles are involved later, allowing the patients to keep their autonomy in transfers using a joystick to guide their wheelchair. Musculoskeletal contractures (ankle, knees and hips) and learning difficulties can complicate the clinical expression of the disease. Besides this weakness distribution in the same patient, a deep variability among patients does exist. They could express a mild phenotype, between Becker and Duchenne dystrophy, or a really severe form, with the loss of deambulation at 7-8 years. Confinement to a wheelchair is followed by the development of scoliosis, respiratory failure and cardiomyopathy. In 90% of people death is directly related to chronic respiratory insufficiency (Rideau et al., 1983). The identification and characterization of dystrophin gene led to the development of potential treatments for this disorder (Bertoni, 2008). Even if only corticosteroids were proven to be effective on DMD patient (Hyser and Mendell, 1988), different therapeutic approaches were attempted, as described in detail below (see section 7).
The identification and characterization of the genes whose mutations caused the most common neuromuscular diseases led to the development of potential treatments for those disorders. Gene therapy for neuromuscular disorders embraced several concepts, including replacing and repairing a defective gene or modifying or enhancing cellular performance, using gene that is not directly related to the underlying defect (Shavlakadze et al., 2004). As an example, the finding that DMD pathology was caused by mutations in the dystrophin gene allowed the rising of different therapeutic approaches including growth-modulating agents that increase muscle regeneration and delay muscle fibrosis (Tinsley et al., 1998), powerful antisense oligonucleotides with exon-skipping capacity (Mc Clorey et al., 2006), anti-inflammatory or second-messenger signal-modulating agents that affect immune responses (Biggar et al., 2006), agents designed to suppress stop codon mutations (Hamed, 2006). Viral and non-viral vectors were used to deliver the full-length – or restricted versions – of the dystrophin gene into stem cells; alternatively, specific antisense oligonucleotides were designed to mask the putative splicing sites of exons in the mutated region of the primary RNA transcript whose removal would re-establish a correct reading frame. In parallel, the biology of stem cells and their role in regeneration were the subject of intensive and extensive research in many laboratories around the world because of the promise of stem cells as therapeutic agents to regenerate tissues damaged by disease or injury (Fuchs and Segre, 2000; Weissman, 2000). This research constituted a significant part of the rapidly developing field of regenerative biology and medicine, and the combination of gene and cell therapy arose as one of the most suitable possibility to treat degenerative disorders. Several works were published in which stem cell were genetically modified by ex vivo introduction of corrective genes and then transplanted in donor dystrophic animal models.
Stem cells received much attention because of their potential use in cell-based therapies for human disease such as leukaemia (Owonikoko et al., 2007), Parkinsons disease (Singh et al., 2007), and neuromuscular disorders (Endo, 2007; Nowak and Davies, 2004). The main advantage of stem cells rather than the other cells of the body is that they can replenish their numbers for long periods through cell division and, they can produce a progeny that can differentiate into multiple cell lineages with specific functions (Bertoni, 2008). The candidate stem cell had to be easy to extract, maintaining the capacity of myogenic conversion when transplanted into the host muscle and also the survival and the subsequent migration from the site of injection to the compromise muscles of the body (Price et al., 2007). With the advent of more sensitive markers, stem cell populations suitable for clinical experiments were found to derive from multiple region of the body at various stage of development. Numerous studies showed that the regenerative capacity of stem cells resided in the environmental microniche and its regulation. This way, it could be important to better elucidate the molecular composition cytokines, growth factors, cell adhesion molecules and extracellular matrix molecules – and interactions of the different microniches that regulate stem cell development (Stocum, 2001).
Several groups published different works concerning adult stem cells such as muscle-derived stem cells (Qu-Petersen et al., 2002), mesoangioblasts (Cossu and Bianco, 2003), blood- (Gavina et al., 2006) and muscle (Benchaouir et al., 2007)-derived CD133+ stem cells. Although some of them are able to migrate through the vasculature (Benchaouir et al., 2007; Galvez et al., 2006; Gavina et al., 2006) and efforts were done to increase their migratory ability (Lafreniere et al., 2006; Torrente et al., 2003a), poor results were obtained.
Embryonic and adult stem cells differ significantly in regard to their differentiation potential and in vitro expansion capability. While adult stem cells constitute a reservoir for tissue regeneration throughout the adult life, they are tissue-specific and possess limited capacity to be expanded ex vivo. Embryonic Stem (ES) cells are derived from the inner cell mass of blastocyst embryos and, by definition, are capable of unlimited in vitro self-renewal and have the ability to differentiate into any cell type of the body (Darabi et al., 2008b). ES cells, together with recently identified iPS cells, are now broadly and extensively studied for their applications in clinical studies.
Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent cells derived from the early embryo that are characterized by the ability to proliferate over prolonged periods of culture remaining undifferentiated and maintaining a stable karyotype (Amit and Itskovitz-Eldor, 2002; Carpenter et al., 2003; Hoffman and Carpenter, 2005). They are capable of differentiating into cells present in all 3 embryonic germ layers, namely ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm, and are characterized by self-renewal, immortality, and pluripotency (Strulovici et al., 2007).
hESCs are derived by microsurgical removal of cells from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst stage embryo (Fig. 1). The ES cells can be also obtained from single blastomeres. This technique creates ES cells from a single blastomere directly removed from the embryo bypassing the ethical issue of embryo destruction (Klimanskaya et al., 2006). Although maintaining the viability of the embryo, it has to be determined whether embryonic stem cell lines derived from a single blastomere that does not compromise the embryo can be considered for clinical studies. Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT): Nuclear transfer, also referred to as nuclear cloning, denotes the introduction of a nucleus from an adult donor cell into an enucleated oocyte to generate a cloned embryo (Wilmut et al., 2002).
ESCs differentiation. Differentiation potentiality of human embryonic stem cell lines. Human embryonic stem cell pluripotency is evaluated by the ability of the cells to differentiate into different cell types.
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Stem Cell Therapy for Neuromuscular Diseases | InTechOpen