Controlling the microenvironment of human embryonic stem cells: maintenance, neuronal differentiation, and function after transplantation
Drury-Stewart, Danielle Nicole
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Precise control of stem cell fate is a fundamental issue in the use of human embryonic stem (hES) cells in the context of cell therapy We examined three ways in which the microenvironment can be controlled to alter hES cell behavior, providing insight into the best conditions for maintenance of pluripotency and neural differentiation in developmental and therapeutic studies. We first examined the effects of polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) growth surfaces on hES cell survival and maintenance of pluripotency. Lightly cured, untreated PDMS was shown to be a poor growth surface for hES cells. Some of the adverse effects caused by PDMS could be mitigated with increased curing or UV treatment of the surface, but neither modification provided a growth surface that supported pluripotent hES cells as well as polystyrene. This work provides a basis for further optimizing PDMS for hES cell culture, moving towards the use of microdevices in establishing precise control over stem cell fate. The second study explored the use of an easily constructed diffusion-based device to grow hES cells in culture on a defined, physiologic oxygen (O₂) gradient. We observed greater hES cell survival and higher levels of pluripotency markers in the lower O₂ regions of the gradient. The greatest benefit was observed at O₂ levels below 5%, narrowing the potential optimal range of O₂ for the maintenance of pluripotent hES cells. Finally, we developed a small molecule-mediated adherent and feeder-free neural differentiation protocol that reduced the cost and time scale for in vitro differentiation of neural precursors and functional neurons from human pluripotent cells. hES cell-derived neural precursors transplanted into a murine model of focal ischemic stroke survived, improved neurogenesis, and differentiated into neurons. Transplant also led to a more consistent and measurable sensory recovery after stroke as compared to untransplanted controls. This protocol represents a potentially translatable method for the generation of CNS progenitors from human pluripotent stem cells.