Growing Skeletal Muscle in the Laboratory


Skeletal muscle – that type of voluntary muscle that allows movement – has proven difficult to grow in the laboratory. While particular cells can be differentiated into skeletal muscle cells, forming a coherent, structurally sound skeletal muscle is a tough nut to crack from a research perspective.

Another problem dogging muscle research is the difficulty growing new muscle in patients with muscle diseases such as muscular dystrophy or other types of disorders that weaken and degrade skeletal muscle.

Now research groups at the Boston Children’s Hospital Stem Cell Program have reported that they can boost the muscle mass and even reverse the disease of mice that suffer from a type of murine muscular dystrophy. To do this, this group use a combination of three different compounds that were identified in a rapid culture system.

This ingenious rapid culture system uses the cells of zebrafish (Danio rerio) embryos to screen for these muscle-inducing compounds. These single cells are placed into the well of a 96-well plate, and then treated with various compounds to determine if those chemical induce the muscle formation. To facilitate this process, the zebrafish embryo cells express a very special marker that consists of the myosin light polypeptide 2 gene fused to a red-colored protein called “cherry.” When cells become muscle, they express the myosin light polypeptide 2 gene at high levels. Therefore, any embryo cell that differentiates into muscle should glow a red color.

(A) myf5-GFP;mylz2-mCherry double-transgenic expression recapitulates expression of the endogenous genes. myf5-GFP is first detected at the 11-somite stage. mylz2-mCherry expression is not observed until 32 hpf. Scale bars represent 200 mm. (B) myf5-GFP;mylz2-mCherry embryos were dissociated at the oblong stage and cultured in zESC medium. Images were taken 48 hr after plating. Scale bars represent 250 mm.
(A) myf5-GFP;mylz2-mCherry double-transgenic expression recapitulates expression of the endogenous genes. myf5-GFP is first detected at the 11-somite
stage. mylz2-mCherry expression is not observed until 32 hpf. Scale bars represent 200 mm.
(B) myf5-GFP;mylz2-mCherry embryos were dissociated at the oblong stage and cultured in zESC medium. Images were taken 48 hr after plating. Scale bars
represent 250 mm.

Once a cocktail of muscle-inducing chemicals were identified in this assay, those same chemicals were used to treat induced pluripotent stem cells made from cells taken from patients with muscular dystrophy.  Those iPSCs were treated with the combination of chemicals identified in the zebrafish embryo screen as muscle inducing agents.

Zebrafish embryo culture system

The results were outstanding.¬† Leonard Zon from the Division of Hematology/Oncology, Children‚Äôs Hospital Boston and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and his colleagues showed that a combination of¬†basic Fibroblast Growth Factor, an ¬†adenylyl cyclase activator called¬†forskolin, and the GSK3ő≤ inhibitor BIO induced skeletal muscle differentiation in human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).¬† Furthermore, these muscle cells¬†produced engraftable myogenic progenitors that contributed to muscle repair when implanted into mice with a rodent form of muscular dystrophy.

Representative hematoxylin and eosin staining (H&E) images and immunostaining on TA sections of preinjured NSG mice injected with 1 3 105 iPSCs at day 14 of differentiation. Muscles injected with BJ, 00409, or 05400 iPSC-derived cells stain positively for human d-Sarcoglycan protein (red). Fibers were counterstained with Laminin (green). No staining is observed in PBS-injected mice or when 00409 fibroblast cells were transplanted. Because the area of human cell engraftment could not be specifically distinguished on H&E stained sections, which must be processed differently from sections for immunostaining, the H&E images shown do not represent the same muscle region as that shown in immunofluorescence images. Scale bars represent 100 mm, n = 3 per sample.
Representative hematoxylin and eosin staining
(H&E) images and immunostaining on TA sections
of preinjured NSG mice injected with 1 3 105
iPSCs at day 14 of differentiation. Muscles injected
with BJ, 00409, or 05400 iPSC-derived cells
stain positively for human d-Sarcoglycan protein
(red). Fibers were counterstained with Laminin
(green). No staining is observed in PBS-injected
mice or when 00409 fibroblast cells were transplanted.
Because the area of human cell engraftment
could not be specifically distinguished on
H&E stained sections, which must be processed
differently from sections for immunostaining, the
H&E images shown do not represent the same
muscle region as that shown in immunofluorescence
images. Scale bars represent 100 mm, n = 3
per sample.

Zon hopes that clinical trials can being soon in order to translate these remarkable results into patients with muscle loss within the next several years.  Zon and his co-workers are also screening compounds to address other types of disorders beyond muscular dystrophy.

This paper represents the application of shear and utter genius.¬† However, there is one caveat.¬† The mice into which the muscles were injected were immunodeficient mice whose immune systems are unable to reject transplanted tissues.¬† In human patients with muscular dystrophy, an immune response against dystrophin, the defective protein, has been an enduring problem (for a review of this, see T. Okada and S. Takeda,¬†Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2013 Jun 27;6(7):813-836).¬† While there have been some technological developments that might circumvent this problem, transplanting large quantities of muscle cells might be beyond the pale.¬† Muscular dystrophy results from disruption of an important junction between the muscle and substratum to which the muscle is secured.¬† This connection is mediated by the “dystrophin-glycoprotein complex.”¬† Structural disruptions of this complex (shown below)¬†lead to unanchored muscle that cannot contract properly,¬†and eventually atrophies and degrades.

Dystrophin-glycoprotein complex. Molecular structure of the dystrophin-glycoprotein complex and related proteins superimposed on the sarcolemma and subsarcolemmal actin network (redrawn from Yoshida et al. [5], with modifications). cc, coiled-coil motif on dystrophin (Dys) and dystrobrevin (DB); SGC, sarcoglycan complex;SSPN, sarcospan; Syn, syntrophin; Cav3, caveolin-3; N and C, the N and C termini, respectively; G, G-domain of laminin; asterisk indicates the actin-binding site on the dystrophin rod domain; WW, WW domain.
Dystrophin-glycoprotein complex. Molecular structure of the dystrophin-glycoprotein complex and related proteins superimposed on the sarcolemma and subsarcolemmal actin network (redrawn from Yoshida et al. [5], with modifications). cc, coiled-coil motif on dystrophin (Dys) and dystrobrevin (DB); SGC, sarcoglycan complex;SSPN, sarcospan; Syn, syntrophin; Cav3, caveolin-3; N and C, the N and C termini, respectively; G, G-domain of laminin; asterisk indicates the actin-binding site on the dystrophin rod domain; WW, WW domain.
This is a remarkable advance, but until the host immune response issue is satisfactorily addressed, it will remain a problem.

Foregut Stem Cells


Scientists from Cambridge University have designed a new protocol that will convert pluripotent stem cells into primitive gut stem cells that have the capacity to differentiate into liver, pancreas, or some other gastrointestinal structure.

Nicholas Hannan and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge Welcome Trust MRC Stem Cell Institute have developed a technique that allows researchers to grow a pure, self-renewing population of stem cells that are specific to the human foregut, which is the upper section of the human digestive system. These types of stem cells are known as “foregut stem cells” and they can be used to make liver, pancreas, stomach, esophagus, or even parts of the small intestine. Making these types of gastrointestinal tissues can provide material for research into gastrointestinal abnormalities, but might also serve as a source of material to treat type 1 diabetes, liver disease, esophageal and stomach cancer, and other types of severe gastrointestinal diseases.

“We have developed a cell culture system which allows us to specifically isolate foregut stem cells in the lab,” said Hannan. “These cells have huge implications for regenerative medicine, because they are the precursors to the thyroid upper airways, lungs, liver, pancreas, stomach, and biliary systems.”

Hannan did this work in the laboratory of Ludovic Vallier, and they think that their technique will provide the means to analyze the precise embryonic development of the foregut in greater detail. “We now have a platform from which we can study the early patterning events that occur during human development to produce intestines, liver, lungs, and pancreas,” said Hannan.

To make foregut stem cells, Hannan begins with a pluripotent stem cell line; either an embryonic stem cell line or an induced pluripotent stem cell line. Then he differentiated them into definitive endoderm by treating them with CDM-PVA and activin-A (100 ng/ml), BMP4 (10 ng/ml), bFGF (20 ng/ml), and LY294002 (10 mM) for 3 days. Once they differentiated into endoderm, the endodermal cells were grown in RPMI+B27 medium with activin-A (50 ng/ml) for 3-4 days in order to generate foregut stem cells.

(A) GFP-expressing hPSCs were differentiated into hFSCs. (B) Single GFP-positive hFSCs were seeded onto a layer of non-GFP hFSCs and then expanded for five passages. The resulting population was then split into culture conditions inductive for liver or pancreatic differentiation. (C and D) GFP-hFSCs differentiated for 25 days were found to respectively generate cells expressing liver markers (ALB, LDL-uptake) and pancreatic markers (PDX1, C-peptide) from both hESC-derived (C) and hIPSC-derived (D) hFSCs.
(A) GFP-expressing hPSCs were differentiated into hFSCs.  (B) Single GFP-positive hFSCs were seeded onto a layer of non-GFP hFSCs and then expanded for five passages. The resulting population was then split into culture conditions inductive for liver or pancreatic differentiation.  (C and D) GFP-hFSCs differentiated for 25 days were found to respectively generate cells expressing liver markers (ALB, LDL-uptake) and pancreatic markers (PDX1, C-peptide) from both hESC-derived (C) and hIPSC-derived (D) hFSCs.

These foregut stem cells (FSCs) can self-renew, and can also differentiate into any part of the foregut. Thus, FSCs can grow robustly in culture, and they can also differentiate into foregut derivatives. However, these cells also do not form tumors. When injected into mice, they failed to form tumors.

(A) Large cystic hFSC outgrowth under the kidney capsule of a NOD-SCID mouse. (B) Cryosection of a hFSC outgrowth showing large cystic structures lined with epithelial cells. (C) Immunocytochemistry showing foregut outgrowths expressing EpCAM, PDX1, AFP, and NKX2.1. Scale bars, 100 őľm or 50 őľm as shown. See also Figure S4.
(A) Large cystic hFSC outgrowth under the kidney capsule of a NOD-SCID mouse. ¬†(B) Cryosection of a hFSC outgrowth showing large cystic structures lined with epithelial cells. ¬†(C) Immunocytochemistry showing foregut outgrowths expressing EpCAM, PDX1, AFP, and NKX2.1. ¬†Scale bars, 100 őľm or 50 őľm as shown. See also Figure S4.

What are the advantages to FSCs as opposed to making pancreatic cells or liver cells from pluripotent stem cells? These types of experiments always create cultures that are impure. Such cultures are difficult to use because not all the cells have the same growth requirements and they would be dangerous for therapeutic purposes because they might contain undifferentiated cells that might grow uncontrollably and cause a tumor. Therefore, FSCs provide a better starting point to make pure cultures of pancreatic tissues, liver tissues, stomach tissues and so on.

Ludovic Vallier, the senior author of this paper said this of his FSCs, “What we have now is a better starting point – a sustainable platform for producing liver and pancreatic cells. It will improve the quality of the cells that we produce and it will allow us to produce the large number of uncontaminated cells we need for the clinical applications of stem cell therapy.”

Vallier’s groups is presently examining the mechanisms that govern the differentiation of FSCs into specific gastrointestinal cell types in order to improve the production of these cells for regenerative medicine.