Bone-Making Ability of Amniotic Epithelial Cells


Human amniotic epithelial cells (hAECs) develop from the embryo as early as eight days after fertilization. hAECs have been shown to possess remarkable plasticity, or the ability to form many cell types. Mattioli and others showed that AECs from sheep have capacity to differentiate into bone cells (see Cell Biol Int 2012;36:7-19). Therefore, it is possible that these cells could be developed into a source of cells for regenerative treatments.

Steve Shen from the Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine and his coworkers have examined the ability of cultured hAECs to make bone in culture, and then applied their techniques to an animal system to test the ability of cultured hAECs to restore tooth sockets and facial bone.

To begin, hAECs were isolated from healthy mothers who had undergone childbirth by cesarean section. These cells were cultured in a standard cell culture medium (DMEM/F12 for those who are interested), expanded in culture, and then subjected to flow cytometry to isolate those cells with all the right cell surface markers.

These cells wee then placed into a specialized culture medium designed to convert mesenchymal stem cells into bone-making cells. This osteogenic induction medium was changed every three days for 21 days.  The figure below shows how well the bone-induction worked.  A red stain called alizarin red binds to calcium and therefore stains forming bone matrices rather well.  As you can see in the panel labeled “G” below, the hAECs grown in the osteogenic medium stain red rather well, which shows that they are making bone.

Characterization of hAECs in vitro. (A, B): hAECs at passages 0 and 1 displayed a cobblestone-like morphology. (C): Some hAECs changed into fibroblast-like cells after 7 days of osteoblastic culture. (D): hAECs showed significant morphological changes and settled on superimposed layers after 21 days of osteoblastic culture. (E): Cell proliferation of hAECs at passage 1 was significantly higher than at passages 0 and 5 from day 4 to day 12; hAECs at passage 5 displayed the lowest proliferation rate from day 6 to day 14 (☆, p < .05). (F): Flow cytometry analysis showed that hAECs expressed CD44, CD90, CD105, and SSEA-4 and did not express CD34, CD45, and HLA-DR. Values represent the percentages of all assessed cells positively stained by the indicated antigens (bottom of each graph). Nonspecific fluorescence was determined as the blank control using isotype-matched monoclonal antibodies (PE blank, FITC blank). (G): Representative images of microscopic and general photographs for ALP and ARS staining in osteogenic and control groups indicated the osteogenic differentiation of hAECs in vitro. Scale bar = 200 μm. Abbreviations: ALP, alkaline phosphatase; ARS, alizarin red S; FITC, fluorescein isothiocyanate; hAEC, human amniotic epithelial cell; OD, optical density; p, passage; PE, phycoerythrin.
Characterization of hAECs in vitro. (A, B): hAECs at passages 0 and 1 displayed a cobblestone-like morphology. (C): Some hAECs changed into fibroblast-like cells after 7 days of osteoblastic culture. (D): hAECs showed significant morphological changes and settled on superimposed layers after 21 days of osteoblastic culture. (E): Cell proliferation of hAECs at passage 1 was significantly higher than at passages 0 and 5 from day 4 to day 12; hAECs at passage 5 displayed the lowest proliferation rate from day 6 to day 14 (☆, p < .05). (F): Flow cytometry analysis showed that hAECs expressed CD44, CD90, CD105, and SSEA-4 and did not express CD34, CD45, and HLA-DR. Values represent the percentages of all assessed cells positively stained by the indicated antigens (bottom of each graph). Nonspecific fluorescence was determined as the blank control using isotype-matched monoclonal antibodies (PE blank, FITC blank). (G): Representative images of microscopic and general photographs for ALP and ARS staining in osteogenic and control groups indicated the osteogenic differentiation of hAECs in vitro. Scale bar = 200 μm. Abbreviations: ALP, alkaline phosphatase; ARS, alizarin red S; FITC, fluorescein isothiocyanate; hAEC, human amniotic epithelial cell; OD, optical density; p, passage; PE, phycoerythrin.

When hAECs were subjected to gene expression assays, it was clear that the cells grown in the osteogenic medium expressed a whole host of bone-specific genes.  Therefore, the formation of bone was not a fluke, since these cells not only concentrated calcium, but also increased their expression of bone-specific genes (these include osterix, Runx2, Alkaline phosphatase, Collagen I, and osteoprotegerin).

Additionally, those hAECs grown in osteogenic medium stopped forming sheets of cells and began to grow as individual cells.  This is an important transformation for the synthesis of bone because bone-making cells secrete a bone-specific protein matrix upon which calcium phosphate-based crystals deposit to form bone.  If the cells were organized in sheets, then bone deposition would not be possible.  When isolated from amniotic membranes, hAECs grow as sheets of cells that are known as epithelia.  In order to become bone-making cells, the hAECs must undergo an “epithelial-to-mesenchymal transformation” or EMT.  This requires turning on new genes and turning off others.  Gene expression assays of hAECs grown in the osteogenic medium, show extensive evidence of EMT.  For example, a protein called E-cadherin is essential for cells growing in sheets, because it helps cells stick to each other.  However, in hAECs grown in the osteogenic medium, E-cadherin expression was quite low.  Also, a protein called vimentin is highly expressed during EMT, and the hAECs grown in osteogenic medium showed high expression of vimentin.  Thus, these hAECs were undergoing all the necessary changes in order to become bone-making cells,, making all the right genes, and made bone in culture to boot.

This is certainly interesting, but can these hAECs repair bone in a living animal?  Shen’s group tried that very experiment.  The hAECs that were grown in the osteogenic medium were loaded on tricalcium phosphate scaffolds and implanted into rodents with tooth socket lesions.  Control animals were implanted with tricalcium phosphate scaffolds without cells.  The scaffold with cells significantly increased bone formation in the rodents, and showed much more infilling with mineralized tissue.  There was also extensive evidence of the formation of new vasculature and wandering cells called macrophages that are important for the degradation of the implanted scaffold required for new bone formation.  Tissue samples were examined 4 to 8 weeks after the implants were placed.

In vivo healing process in alveolar defect at 4 and 8 weeks postoperatively. (A): Representative three-dimensional micro-computed tomography (CT) reconstruction images of hAECs+β-TCP scaffold (EXP) and β-TCP scaffold (CTR) at 4 and 8 weeks postoperatively. Scale bar = 1 mm. (B): Micro-CT parameters acquired among β-TCP scaffold in vitro, hAECs+β-TCP scaffold in vivo, and β-TCP scaffold alone in vivo at 4 and 8 weeks postoperatively (☆, p < .05). (C): Hematoxylin and eosin staining of the rat alveolar defect at 4 and 8 weeks postoperatively revealed more active new bone formation in the EXP group than in the CTR group (×50 and ×200 magnification). Alveolar defect treated with hAECs+β-TCP scaffold exhibited a more mature lamellae-bone formation at 8 weeks postoperatively. Scale bar = 200 μm. (D): ANA-positive cells, visible as green fluorescence in the nuclei, were observed within the newly deposited OCN, and OPN-positive bone tissue, visible as red fluorescence, in the EXP group at 4 weeks postoperatively, indicating a mature osteoblastic function of these hAEC-derived cells. Scale bar = 50 μm. (E): Representative images of immunohistochemical staining of sections with anti-VEGF antibody and anti-CD68 antibody in hAECs+β-TCP scaffold (EXP) and β-TCP scaffold (CTR) at 4 and 8 weeks postoperatively. Scale bar = 200 μm. (F): The histomorphometric quantification of the relative new bone area, VEGF-positive area, and CD68-positive area showed that more bone tissue regeneration was observed in the EXP group than in the CTR group at 4 and 8 weeks postoperatively. The positive signal of VEGF and CD68 in the EXP group was much weaker at 4 weeks postoperatively and became more intense at 8 weeks postoperatively compared with the CTR group (☆, p < .05). Abbreviations: ANA, anti-nuclear antibody; BV/TV, bone volume/tissue volume ratio; BMD, bone mineralization density; hAECs, human amniotic epithelial cells; OPN, osteopontin; post op, postoperatively; SMI, structure model index; Tb.Th., trabecular thickness; Tb.N., trabecular number; Tb.Sp., trabecular separation; β-TCP, β-tricalcium phosphate; VEGF, vascular endothelial growth factor.
In vivo healing process in alveolar defect at 4 and 8 weeks postoperatively. (A): Representative three-dimensional micro-computed tomography (CT) reconstruction images of hAECs+β-TCP scaffold (EXP) and β-TCP scaffold (CTR) at 4 and 8 weeks postoperatively. Scale bar = 1 mm. (B): Micro-CT parameters acquired among β-TCP scaffold in vitro, hAECs+β-TCP scaffold in vivo, and β-TCP scaffold alone in vivo at 4 and 8 weeks postoperatively (☆, p < .05). (C): Hematoxylin and eosin staining of the rat alveolar defect at 4 and 8 weeks postoperatively revealed more active new bone formation in the EXP group than in the CTR group (×50 and ×200 magnification). Alveolar defect treated with hAECs+β-TCP scaffold exhibited a more mature lamellae-bone formation at 8 weeks postoperatively. Scale bar = 200 μm. (D): ANA-positive cells, visible as green fluorescence in the nuclei, were observed within the newly deposited OCN, and OPN-positive bone tissue, visible as red fluorescence, in the EXP group at 4 weeks postoperatively, indicating a mature osteoblastic function of these hAEC-derived cells. Scale bar = 50 μm. (E): Representative images of immunohistochemical staining of sections with anti-VEGF antibody and anti-CD68 antibody in hAECs+β-TCP scaffold (EXP) and β-TCP scaffold (CTR) at 4 and 8 weeks postoperatively. Scale bar = 200 μm. (F): The histomorphometric quantification of the relative new bone area, VEGF-positive area, and CD68-positive area showed that more bone tissue regeneration was observed in the EXP group than in the CTR group at 4 and 8 weeks postoperatively. The positive signal of VEGF and CD68 in the EXP group was much weaker at 4 weeks postoperatively and became more intense at 8 weeks postoperatively compared with the CTR group (☆, p < .05). Abbreviations: ANA, anti-nuclear antibody; BV/TV, bone volume/tissue volume ratio; BMD, bone mineralization density; hAECs, human amniotic epithelial cells; OPN, osteopontin; post op, postoperatively; SMI, structure model index; Tb.Th., trabecular thickness; Tb.N., trabecular number; Tb.Sp., trabecular separation; β-TCP, β-tricalcium phosphate; VEGF, vascular endothelial growth factor.

hAECs are typically not recognized by the immune system as foreign and they also have anti-scarring capabilities.  Not only can they effectively form bone in culture, but they can also repair an alveolar defect in a rodent model.  Clearly these cells show promise for clinical applications.  However, before they can be used in the clinic more has to be known about their culture conditions, how many cells are required for transplantation, the best cell dose, at what passages they need to be used, and so on.  Thus, this paper represents a good start for hAECs, but they have to be better understood before they can come to the clinic.

A Protein Responsible for Cancer Stem Formation Provides a Drug Target


Eighty-five percent of all tumors are carcinomas, which are tumors that form in layers of cells that line surfaces.  Such cell layers are known as an epithelium. When carcinomas form, they undergo an “epithelial-mesenchymal” transformation” or EMT.  EMT means that cells go from being closely aligned and tightly bound to each other in a an organized layer to cells that have little to do with each other and grow in unorganized clumps.  Is there a molecule that unites the carcinomas and if so is this molecule a potential drug target for cancer treatments?

Mammary Carcinoma
Mammary Carcinoma

Researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have identified a protein that seems to play a pivotal role in EMT.  This protein, FOXC2, may lay at the nexus of why some carcinomas resist chemotherapy and grow uncontrollably and spread.  FOXC2 could, conceivably represent a novel drug target for chemotherapy.

Sendurai Mani, assistant professor of Translational Molecular Pathology and co-director of the Metastasis Research Center at MD Anderson, said, “We found that FOXC2 lies at the crossroads of the cellular properties of cancer stem cells and cells that have undergone EMT, a process of cellular change associated with generating cancer stem cells.”

Cancer stem cells are fewer in number than other tumor cells, yet research has tied them to cancer progression and resistance to treatment.  Abnormal activation of EMT can actually create cancer stem cells, according to Mani.

Mani continued, “There are multiple molecular pathways that activate EMT.  We found many of these pathways also activate FOXC2 expression to launch this transition, making FOXC2 a potentially efficient check point to block EMT from occurring. ”  Mani’s research group used experiments with cultured cells and mice to discover these concepts, but the next step will require assessing the levels of FOXC2 expression in human tumors samples.

In the meantime, these new data from Mani’s research team may have profound implication for the treatment of particular types of carcinomas that have proven to be remarkably stubborn.  Breast cancers, for example, are typically carcinomas of the mammary gland ductal system.  A specific group of breasts cancers are very notoriously resistant to treatment, and FOXC2 seems to be at the center of such breast cancers.

The anti-cancer drug sunitinib, which is marketed under the trade name Sutent, has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) for three different types of cancers.  In this study, sunitinib proved effective against these particularly stubborn types of breast cancer; the so-called “triple-negative, claudin-low” breast cancers.

Sunitinib
Sunitinib

Mani explained why such breast cancers are so resistant to treatment:  “FOXC2 is a transcription factor, a protein that binds to DNA in the promoter region of genes to activate them.  For a variety of reasons, transcription factors are hard to target with drugs.”

However, sunitinib seems to target these triple-negative breast cancers.  When mice with triple-negative breast cancer were treated with sunitinib, the treated mice had smaller primary tumors, longer survival, and fewer incidences of metastasis.  The cancer cells also showed a marked decreased in their ability to form “mammospheres,” or balls of cancer stem cells (this is an earmark of cancer stem cells).  Thus sunitinib seem to attack cancer stem cells.

As it turns out, FOXC2 activates the expression of the platelet-derived growth factor receptor-beta (PDGFRc-beta).  Activation of PDGFRc-beta drives cell proliferation in FOXC2-positive cells, and sunitinib inhibits PDGFRc-beta and inhibits cells that have active FOXC2 and undergoing EMT.

Triple-negative breast cancer cells lack receptors that are used by the most common anti-cancer drugs.  These deficiencies are responsible for the resistance of these cancers to treatment.  Such cancer cells also tend to under go EMT because they lack the protein claudin, which binds epithelial cells together.  Without claudin, these cancer cells become extremely aggressive.

Since cells undergoing EMT are heavily expressing FOXC2, Mani and his colleagues used a small RNA molecule that makes a short hairpin and inhibits FOXC2 synthesis.  Unfortunately, blocking FOXC2 had no effect on cell growth, but it did alter the physical appearance of the cells and reduced their expression of genes associated with EMT and increased the expression of E-cadherin, a protein necessary for epithelial cell organization.  Breast cancer cells also became less invasive when FOXC2 was inhibited, and they down-regulated CD44 and CD24, which are markers of cancer stem cells..  Additionally, triple-negative breast cancer cells that had FOXC2 inhibited had a reduced ability to make mammospheres.  Thus, FOXC2 expression is elevated in cancer stem cells, and inhibition of FOXC2 decreased the ability of the cancer stem cells to behave as cancer stem cells.

Mammospheres
Mammospheres

Mani’s group also approached these experiments from another approach by overexpressing FOXC2 in malignant mammary epithelial cells.  This forced FOXC2 expression drove cells to undergo EMT and become much more aggressive and metastatic (the cancer spread to the liver, hind leg, lungs, and brain).  Breast cancer cells without forced FOXC2 overexpression showed no tendency to metastasize.

Finally, Mani’s group examined metastatic mammary tumors that were highly aggressive when implanted into nude mice (mice that cannot reject transplants).  Two of the tumors were claudin-negative and both of these tumors showed elevated FOXC2 expression.  When FOXC2 expression was blocked by Mani’s hairpin RNA, the claudin-negative tumors became less aggressive and grew more as mesenchymal cells.  The cells that underwent EMT also showed high levels of PDGF-RC-beta expression.

Mani said of these data: “We thought PDGF-B might be a drugable target in these FOXC2-expressing cells.”  Mani’s group also showed that suppressing FOXC2 reduced the expression of PDGFRC-Beta.  Thus, this small molecule might be an effective therapeutic strategy for treating these hard-to-treat breast cancers.

MD Anderson has filed a patent application connected to this study.

See Hollier B.G., Tinnirello A.A., Werden S.J., Evans K.W., Taube J.H., Sarkar T.R., Sphyris N., Shariati M., Kumar S.V., Battula V.L., Herschkowitz J.I., Guerra R., Chang J.T., Miura N., Rosen J.M., and Mani S.A.,. FOXC2 expression links epithelial-mesenchymal transition and stem cell properties in breast cancer. Cancer Research. e-Pub 2/2013.