When embryonic stem cell lines are made, they are traditionally grown on a layer of “feeder cells” that secrete growth factors that keep the embryonic stem cells (ESCs) from differentiating and drive them to grow. These feeder cells are usually irradiated mouse fibroblasts that coat the culture dish, but do not divide. Mouse ESCs can be grown without feeder cells if the growth factor LIF is provided in the medium. LIF, however, is not the growth factor required by human ESCs, and therefore, designing culture media for human ESCs to help them grow without feeder cells has proven more difficult.
Having said that, several laboratories have designed media that can be used to derive human embryonic stem cells without feeder cells. Such a procedure is very important if such cells are to be used for therapeutic purposes, since animal cells can harbor difficult to detect viruses and unusual sugars on their cell surfaces that can also be transferred to human ESCs in culture. These unusual sugars can elicit a strong immune response against them, and for this reason, ESCs must be cultivated or derived under cell-free conditions. However, to design good cell-free culture media, we must know more about the growth factors required by ESCs.
To that end, Bruno Reversade from The Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Singapore and others have identified a new growth factor that human ESCs secrete themselves. This protein, ELABELA (ELA), was first identified as a signal for heart development. However, Reversade’s laboratory has discovered that ELA is also abundantly secreted by human ESCs and is required for human ESCs to maintain their ability to self-renew.
Reversade and others deleted the ELA gene with the CRISPR/Cas9 system, and they also knocked the expression of this gene down in other cells with small interfering RNAs. Alternatively, they also incubated human ESCs with antibodies against ELA, which neutralized ELA and prevented it from binding to the cell surface. However Ela was inhibited, the results were the same; reduced ESC growth, increased amounts of cell death, and loss of pluripotency.
How does ELA signal to cells to grow? Global signaling studies of growing human ESCs showed that ELA activates the PI3K/AKT/mTORC1 signaling pathway, which has been show in other work to be required for cell survival. By activating this pathway, ELA drives human ESCs through the cell-cycle progression, activates protein synthesis, and inhibits stress-induced apoptosis.
Interestingly, INSULIN and ELA have partially overlapping functions in human ESC culture medium, but only ELA seems to prime human ESCs toward the endoderm lineage. In the heart, ELA binds to the Apelin receptor APLNR. This receptor, however, is not expressed in human ESCs, which suggests that another receptor, whose identity remains unknown at the moment, binds ELA in human ESCs.
Thus ELA seems to act through an alternate cell-surface receptor, is an endogenous secreted growth factor in human
This paper was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.