Skip to main content

Advanced cell therapeutics are changing the clinical landscape: will mesenchymal stromal cells be a part of it?


During the past 15 years there have been dramatic changes in the medical landscape, particularly in oncology and regenerative medicine. Cell therapies have played a substantial part in this progress. Cellular immunotherapies can use immune cells, such as T cells or natural killer cells that, after functional modification ex vivo, exert powerful anti-cancer effects when given to the patient. Innovative technologies, such as re-programming terminally differentiated cells into pluripotent stem cells or into other cell types and applying specific enzymes to more precisely edit the human genome, are paving the way towards more potent cell and gene therapies.

Mesenchymal stromal cells are promising cellular immunotherapeutics, which also have potential for use in tissue engineering strategies and other regenerative medicine applications. However, substantial gaps in our knowledge of their biology and therapeutic efficacy present major challenges to their sustainable implementation in the clinical routine.

In this article, progress in the field of cell therapeutics during the past 15 years will be briefly discussed, with a focus on mesenchymal stromal cells, highlighting the impact of this field on patient care.


When BMC Medicine was inaugurated 15 years ago, available cell therapies were mainly haematopoietic stem cell transplantations, which had been established as standard treatment for haematologic malignancies. However, allogeneic haematopoietic stem cell transplantation carried a major risk of developing life-threatening complications, such as non-engraftment, serious infections and graft-versus-host disease (GvHD) [1]. Within this period, groundbreaking novel technologies were also developed; for example, re-programming of differentiated cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) [2, 3] and precise enzymatic genome editing [4], both providing yet unknown options for cell and gene therapies. Advancing adoptive cellular immunotherapy, novel insights into interactions between immune cells and cancerous tissue, efficacious cell collection using optimised apheresis techniques, as well as sophisticated ex vivo-cell engineering, enabled the introduction of chimeric antigen receptor (-T) cell therapies into the clinic [5]. Personalised vaccination strategies use patient-derived cancer cells to generate individual dendritic cell-based vaccines that were successfully applied against malignancies including ovarian cancer and acute leukaemia [6, 7].

Based on findings of the therapeutic potential of non-haematopoietic precursor cells [8, 9], early experimental cell therapy concepts had been suggested to regenerate damaged tissue, particularly the heart [10,11,12], heralding the field of regenerative medicine at the beginning of the new millennium. Because of their immunomodulatory and regenerative effects, mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) were extensively evaluated for their potential uses in cellular immunotherapy and regenerative medicine. MSCs can be isolated from a variety of tissues such as bone marrow (BM), adipose tissue, cord (blood), or amniotic fluid [13], as well as from iPSC, with the potential of an inexhaustible source [14]. Here I elaborate on significant developments in MSC therapies during the past 15 years.

Immunomodulation cell therapies

Interacting with different immune cell subsets, MSCs exert immunomodulatory effects in vitro, such as suppressing activated T cell proliferation and cytokine production. They have been shown to induce a tolerogenic immune phenotype in vivo, as characterised by a decrease in pro-inflammatory IL-17 positive T cells and an increase in regulatory T cells [13, 15, 16]. These observations suggest that MSCs may be interesting candidates for the treatment of immunopathologies. Indeed, MSC therapeutics have been applied in multiple clinical trials for GvHD and organ graft rejection, as well as for autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis or type 1 diabetes mellitus [16, 17]. Yet, clinical results over the past decade have been variable [16]. Specifically, an allogeneic MSC product for GvHD therapy performed disappointingly in 2009 [18], dampening initial enthusiasm. Also, a recent Cochrane review of numerous clinical trials [19] found insufficient evidence that MSCs were an effective therapy for GvHD. Innovative approaches for MSC-mediated GvHD therapy include MSC-derived extracellular vesicles [20]; pooling of BM-derived mononuclear cells to generate a more standardised MSC product with robust immunomodulation capacity [21]; and measuring the ability of immune cells to kill MSC, thereby identifying patients who respond to MSC immunotherapy [22].

Regenerative medicine

MSCs, without or with genetic modifications or other ex vivo manipulations to increase their therapeutic potential, have been shown to exert therapeutic effects in diseases of various organs, including the heart, lung, liver, pancreas, kidney, skeletal system and the central nervous system [23, 24]. To date, MSCs have been assessed for regenerative applications in numerous clinical trials, with the main sources being BM and adipose tissue [24]. As MSCs feature the potential for mesodermal differentiation in vitro, direct tissue replacement of damaged tissue by differentiated MSCs was initially postulated as a mechanism of action [25]. However, growing evidence has shifted towards paracrine factors and extracellular vesicles being responsible for mediating immunomodulatory and regenerative MSC functions [23, 26]. Novel technologies allow the large-scale production of MSCs in bioreactors [27]; MSC can also be applied, with or without scaffolds, in tissue engineering concepts [28] for disease modelling and therapy.

Challenges and novel approaches

The past decade has shown that, despite encouraging clinical data, major challenges prevail before MSC therapies can be sustainably implemented in the clinical routine. To date, the poorly understood heterogeneity of MSCs means that major issues are yet to be addressed; for example, between individuals and within respective MSC preparations, variable manufacture technologies, and minimally defined media supplements (such as fetal calf serum or human platelet lysate) [29, 30]. Consequently, it is difficult to compare MSC therapeutics because they lack standardized quality and there are only few measures available – some of debatable relevance – to assess their potency. Therefore, it remains unclear as to which patients will ultimately profit from these therapies.

Advanced technologies, like single cell analyses, give deeper insights into MSC heterogeneity, allowing functional cell clusters and/or molecular signatures to be identified, which could be linked to their therapeutic potential [31, 32].


During the past 15 years, technological hallmarks like iPSC generation, genome editing and single cell analysis platforms have been developed. This biotechnological progress has led to significant achievements in the cell therapy field, including MSC-mediated immunomodulation and tissue regeneration. This progress is encouraging and the clinical MSC field is, after some stagnation, now regaining momentum.

Better understanding MSC heterogeneity, their mechanisms of action and evidence-based identification of patient cohorts who might benefit from MSC therapeutics, could help to sustainably translate these therapies to the clinic.



Bone marrow


Graft-versus-host disease


Induced pluripotent stem cells


Mesenchymal stromal cells


  1. Little MT, Storb R. History of haematopoietic stem-cell transplantation. Nat Rev Cancer. 2002;2:231–8.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Takahashi K, Tanabe K, Ohnuki M, Narita M, Ichisaka T, Tomoda K, et al. Induction of pluripotent stem cells from adult human fibroblasts by defined factors. Cell. 2007;131:861–72.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Yu J, Vodyanik MA, Smuga-Otto K, Antosiewicz-Bourget J, Frane JL, Tian S, et al. Induced pluripotent stem cell lines derived from human somatic cells. Science. 2007;318:1917–20.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Cornu TI, Mussolino C, Cathomen T. Refining strategies to translate genome editing to the clinic. Nat Med. 2017;23:415–23.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Porter DL, Levine BL, Kalos M, Bagg A, June CH. Chimeric antigen receptor-modified T cells in chronic lymphoid leukemia. N Engl J Med. 2011;365:725–33.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Tanyi JL, George E. Personalized vaccination against ovarian cancer: what are the possibilities? Expert Rev Vaccines. 2018;17:955–8.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Rosenblatt J, Stone RM, Uhl L, Neuberg D, Joyce R, Levine JD, et al. Individualized vaccination of AML patients in remission is associated with induction of antileukemia immunity and prolonged remissions. Sci Transl Med. 2016;8:368ra171.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Kocher AA, Schuster MD, Szabolcs MJ, Takuma S, Burkhoff D, Wang J, et al. Neovascularization of ischemic myocardium by human bone-marrow-derived angioblasts prevents cardiomyocyte apoptosis, reduces remodeling and improves cardiac function. Nat Med. 2001;7:430–6.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Mangi AA, Noiseux N, Kong D, He H, Rezvani M, Ingwall JS, et al. Mesenchymal stem cells modified with Akt prevent remodeling and restore performance of infarcted hearts. Nat Med. 2003;9:1195–201.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Strauer BE, Brehm M, Zeus T, Kostering M, Hernandez A, Sorg RV, et al. Repair of infarcted myocardium by autologous intracoronary mononuclear bone marrow cell transplantation in humans. Circulation. 2002;106:1913–8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Assmus B, Schachinger V, Teupe C, Britten M, Lehmann R, Dobert N, et al. Transplantation of Progenitor Cells and Regeneration Enhancement in Acute Myocardial Infarction (TOPCARE-AMI). Circulation. 2002;106:3009–17.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Menasche P, Hagege AA, Scorsin M, Pouzet B, Desnos M, Duboc D, et al. Myoblast transplantation for heart failure. Lancet. 2001;357:279–80.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Fontaine MJ, Shih H, Schafer R, Pittenger MF. Unraveling the mesenchymal stromal cells’ paracrine immunomodulatory effects. Transfus Med Rev. 2016;30:37–43.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Zhao C, Ikeya M. Generation and applications of induced pluripotent stem cell-derived mesenchymal stem cells. Stem Cells Int. 2018;2018:9601623.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  15. Jitschin R, Mougiakakos D, Von BL, Volkl S, Moll G, Ringden O, et al. Alterations in the cellular immune compartment of patients treated with third-party mesenchymal stromal cells following allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. Stem Cells. 2013;31:1715–25.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Trounson A, McDonald C. Stem cell therapies in clinical trials: progress and challenges. Cell Stem Cell. 2017;17:11–22.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Leyendecker A Jr, Pinheiro CCG, Amano MT, Bueno DF. The use of human mesenchymal stem cells as therapeutic agents for the in vivo treatment of immune-related diseases: a systematic review. Front Immunol. 2018;9:2056.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Galipeau J. The mesenchymal stromal cells dilemma – does a negative phase III trial of random donor mesenchymal stromal cells in steroid-resistant graft-versus-host disease represent a death knell or a bump in the road? Cytotherapy. 2013;15:2–8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Fisher SA, Cutler A, Doree C, Brunskill SJ, Stanworth SJ, Navarrete C, et al. Mesenchymal stromal cells as treatment or prophylaxis for acute or chronic graft-versus-host disease in haematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) recipients with a haematological condition. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019;1:CD009768.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  20. Kordelas L, Rebmann V, Ludwig AK, Radtke S, Ruesing J, Doeppner TR, et al. MSC-derived exosomes: a novel tool to treat therapy-refractory graft-versus-host disease. Leukemia. 2014;28:970–3.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Bader P, Kuci Z, Bakhtiar S, Basu O, Bug G, Dennis M, et al. Effective treatment of steroid and therapy-refractory acute graft-versus-host disease with a novel mesenchymal stromal cell product (MSC-FFM). Bone Marrow Transplant. 2018;53:852–62.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Galleu A, Riffo-Vasquez Y, Trento C, Lomas C, Dolcetti L, Cheung TS, et al. Apoptosis in mesenchymal stromal cells induces in vivo recipient-mediated immunomodulation. Sci Transl Med. 2017;9:eaam7828.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. D’souza N, Rossignoli F, Golinelli G, Grisendi G, Spano C, Candini O, et al. Mesenchymal stem/stromal cells as a delivery platform in cell and gene therapies. BMC Med. 2015;13:186.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Schäfer R, Spohn G, Baer PC. Mesenchymal stem/stromal cells in regenerative medicine: can preconditioning strategies improve therapeutic efficacy? Transfus Med Hemother. 2016;43:256–67.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Siegel G, Krause P, Wohrle S, Nowak P, Ayturan M, Kluba T, et al. Bone marrow-derived human mesenchymal stem cells express cardiomyogenic proteins but do not exhibit functional cardiomyogenic differentiation potential. Stem Cells Dev. 2012;21:2457–70.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Phinney DG, Pittenger MF. Concise review: MSC-derived exosomes for cell-free therapy. Stem Cells. 2017;35:851–8.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. Jossen V, van den Bos C, Eibl R, Eibl D. Manufacturing human mesenchymal stem cells at clinical scale: process and regulatory challenges. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol. 2018;102:3981–94.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. Ovsianikov A, Khademhosseini A, Mironov V. The synergy of scaffold-based and scaffold-free tissue engineering strategies. Trends Biotechnol. 2018;36:348–57.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Schäfer R, Bieback K. Characterization of mesenchymal stem or stromal cells: tissue sources, heterogeneity, and function. Transfusion. 2016;56:2S–5S.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Siegel G, Kluba T, Hermanutz-Klein U, Bieback K, Northoff H, Schafer R. Phenotype, donor age and gender affect function of human bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stromal cells. BMC Med. 2013;11:146.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Rennert RC, Schafer R, Bliss T, Januszyk M, Sorkin M, Achrol AS, et al. High-resolution microfluidic single-cell transcriptional profiling reveals clinically relevant subtypes among human stem cell populations commonly utilized in cell-based therapies. Front Neurol. 2016;7:41.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  32. Khong SML, Lee M, Kosaric N, Khong DM, Dong Y, Hopfner U, et al. Single-Cell Transcriptomics of Human Mesenchymal Stem Cells Reveal Age-Related Cellular Subpopulation Depletion and Impaired Regenerative Function. Stem Cells. 2019;37:240–6.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


Not applicable.


Not applicable.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



RS wrote the manuscript and approved the final version.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard Schäfer.

Ethics declarations

Ethics approval

Not applicable.

Consent for publication

Not applicable.

Competing interests

The author declares that he has no competing interests.

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Schäfer, R. Advanced cell therapeutics are changing the clinical landscape: will mesenchymal stromal cells be a part of it?. BMC Med 17, 53 (2019).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: