A collaborative effort between several research teams has successfully directed stem cells to differentiate into kidney tubular cells. This is a significant advance that could hasten the day when stem cell-based treatments are used to treat kidney failure.
Chronic kidney disease is a major global public health problem. Unfortunately, once patients progress to kidney failure, their treatment options are limited to dialysis and kidney transplantation. Regenerative medicine, whose goal is to rebuild or repair tissues and organs, might offer a promising alternative.
A team of researchers from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (Cambridge, Mass.), Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Boston) and Keio University School of Medicine (Tokyo) that included Albert Lam, M.D., Benjamin Freedman, Ph.D. and Ryuji Morizane, M.D., Ph.D., has been diligently developing strategies for the past five years to develop strategies to direct human pluripotent stem cells (human embryonic stem cells or hESCs and human induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs) to differentiate into kidney cells for the purposes of kidney regeneration.
“Our goal was to develop a simple, efficient and reproducible method of differentiating human pluripotent stem cells into cells of the intermediate mesoderm, the earliest tissue in the developing embryo that is fated to give rise to the kidneys,” said Dr. Lam. Lam also noted that these intermediate mesoderm cells would be the “starting blocks” for deriving more specific kidney cells.
Lam and his collaborators discovered a blend of chemicals which, when added to stem cells in a precise sequence, caused the stem cells to turn off their stem cell-specific genes and activate those genes found in kidney cells. Furthermore, the activation of the kidney-specific genes occurred in the same order that they turn on during embryonic kidney development.
The investigators were able to differentiate both hESCs and human iPSCs into cells that expressed the PAX2 and LHX1 genes, which are two key elements of the intermediate mesoderm; the developmental tissue from which the kidney develops. The iPSCs were derived by reprogramming fibroblasts obtained from adult skin biopsies into pluripotent cells. The differentiated cells expressed multiple genes found in intermediate mesoderm and spontaneously produced tubular structures that expressed those genes found in mature kidney tubules.
The researchers could then differentiate the intermediate mesoderm cells into kidney precursor cells that expressed the SIX2, SALL1 and WT1 genes. These three genes designate an embryonic tissue called the “metanephric cap mesenchyme.” Metanephric cap mesenchyme is a critical tissue for kidney differentiation. During kidney development, the metanephric cap mesenchyme contains a population of progenitor cells that give rise to nearly all of the epithelial cells of the kidney (epithelial cells or cells in a sheet, generate the lion’s share of the tubules of the kidney).
The cells also continued to behave like kidney cells when transplanted into adult or embryonic mouse kidneys. This gives further hope that these investigators might one day be able to create kidney tissues that could function in a patient and would be fully compatible with the patient’s immune system.
The findings are published online in Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.