Mesenchymal stem cells sense mitochondria released from damaged cells as danger signals to activate their rescue properties

Cell Death Differ. 2017 Jul;24(7):1224-1238. doi: 10.1038/cdd.2017.51. Epub 2017 May 19.


Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) protect tissues against cell death induced by ischemia/reperfusion insults. This therapeutic effect seems to be controlled by physiological cues released by the local microenvironment following injury. Recent lines of evidence indicate that MSC can communicate with their microenvironment through bidirectional exchanges of mitochondria. In particular, in vitro and in vivo studies report that MSCs rescue injured cells through delivery of their own mitochondria. However, the role of mitochondria conveyed from somatic cells to MSC remains unknown. By using a co-culture system consisting of MSC and distressed somatic cells such as cardiomyocytes or endothelial cells, we showed that mitochondria from suffering cells acted as danger-signaling organelles that triggered the anti-apoptotic function of MSC. We demonstrated that foreign somatic-derived mitochondria were engulfed and degraded by MSC, leading to induction of the cytoprotective enzyme heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1) and stimulation of mitochondrial biogenesis. As a result, the capacity of MSC to donate their mitochondria to injured cells to combat oxidative stress injury was enhanced. We found that similar mechanisms - activation of autophagy, HO-1 and mitochondrial biogenesis - occurred after exposure of MSC to exogenous mitochondria isolated from somatic cells, strengthening the idea that somatic mitochondria alert MSC of a danger situation and subsequently promote an adaptive reparative response. In addition, the cascade of events triggered by the transfer of somatic mitochondria into MSC was recapitulated in a model of myocardial infarction in vivo. Specifically, MSC engrafted into infarcted hearts of mice reduced damage, upregulated HO-1 and increased mitochondrial biogenesis, while inhibition of mitophagy or HO-1 failed to protect against cardiac apoptosis. In conclusion, our study reveals a new facet about the role of mitochondria released from dying cells as a key environmental cue that controls the cytoprotective function of MSC and opens novel avenues to improve the effectiveness of MSC-based therapies.

MeSH terms

  • Acids / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Apoptosis* / drug effects
  • Coculture Techniques
  • Cytoprotection / drug effects
  • Doxorubicin / pharmacology
  • Endosomes / drug effects
  • Endosomes / metabolism
  • Enzyme Induction / drug effects
  • Heme Oxygenase-1 / biosynthesis
  • Heme Oxygenase-1 / metabolism
  • Human Umbilical Vein Endothelial Cells / drug effects
  • Human Umbilical Vein Endothelial Cells / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cell Transplantation
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / drug effects
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / ultrastructure
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mitochondria / drug effects
  • Mitochondria / metabolism*
  • Mitochondria / ultrastructure
  • Mitophagy / drug effects
  • Myocardial Infarction / metabolism
  • Myocardial Infarction / pathology
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction* / drug effects


  • Acids
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Doxorubicin
  • Heme Oxygenase-1