Mesoderm Progenitor Cells With Reduced Tumor-Causing Potential Derived from Human Pluripotent Stem Cells

Karl Willert, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of California, San Diego and his colleagues have generated a new cell line in his laboratory that can potentially all the tissues in our bodies that are generated from mesoderm.

During embryonic development, 14 days after fertilization, the embryo is transformed from a single-cell thick sheet to a three-layered structure by a process called gastrulation. Gastrulation forms an outer layer of cells known as the ectoderm, which forms the skin and the nervous system, a middle layer of cells known as the mesoderm, which forms the muscles, heart, blood vessels, kidneys, gonads, dermis, adrenal glands, bones, and several other important tissues, and an innermost layer of cells called the endoderm, which forms the gastrointestinal tract as its associated structures. These three layers, the ectoderm, mesoderm, and the endoderm, are collectively known as the “primary germ layers” and they are formed at gastrulation.

Willert, in collaboration with co-corresponding author David Brafman from Arizona State University, used a high-throughput screening platform that had been previously developed in Brafman’s laboratory to define the exact cellular microenvironment that would drive pluripotent stem cells efficiently differentiate into mesodermal progenitor cells. Such cells could theoretically differentiate into any of the derivatives of the mesodermal germ layer, and these cells would also show a greatly reduced capacity to form tumors, since they are no longer pluripotent, but only multipotent.

After using their screening platform to differentiate human embryonic stem cells into cells that expressed mesodermal-specific genes, Willert and his team settled upon a microenvironment that differentiated these stem cells into intermediate mesodermal progenitor (IMP) cells that could be propagated in culture. Interestingly, these IMP cells had the ability to differentiate into mature kidney cells, without the risk of forming tumors. Oddly, these cells were not able to differentiate into other types of mesodermal derivatives.

“This work nicely complements recent advances in tissue engineering and the goal of rebuilding or recreating functional organs, such as what we’ve seen with the creation of ‘mini-kidneys’,” said Willert. “It represents a novel source of cells.” This study was published November 10, 2015 in the online journal eLIFE.

Extensive analyses showed that their IMP cells lacked tumor-forming potential. However, they retained the ability to differentiate into cells that compose the adult kidney. The ability to generate expandable populations of IMPs cells with limited differentiation have several advantages over pluripotent human stem cell cultures. First, pluripotent stem cell cultures can be differentiate into specific cell types but even under the best of conditions, such cell preparations can harbor undifferentiated cells that retain the potential to seed tumor growth. Secondly, it is much easier to manipulate and differentiate IMP cells than pluripotent stem cells. That simplifies the protocols for handling these cells, which also decreases the time and expense required to make anything from these cells.  Third, since IMP cells have limited differentiation capabilities, they are less likely than pluripotent stem cells to differentiate into unwanted cell types.

“Our cells can serve as building blocks to generate kidneys that may one day be suitable for cell replacement and transplantation,” said Willert. “I think such a therapeutic application is still a few years in the future, but engineered kidney tissue can serve as a powerful model system to study how the human kidney interacts with and filters drugs. Such an application would be of tremendous value to the pharmaceutical industry.”

Even though Willert’s IMP cells differentiated into kidney cells, Willert is optimistic that they are capable of differentiating into other mesodermal-derived cell types, like gonads. “We have only characterized their potential to differentiate into cells that contribute to the kidney. We are now investigating to what extent these cells can generate other tissues and organs that derive from intermediate mesoderm, including reproductive organs.”

Willert and his colleagues are using the same protocol to generate other expandable progenitor cell lines from pluripotent stem cells derived from other germ layers, such as ectoderm and endoderm.

Human Fat Contains Multilineage Differentiating Stress Enduring Cells With Great Potential for Regenerative Medicine

A collaboration between American and Japanese scientists has discovered and characterized a new stem cell population from human fat that do not cause tumors and can differentiate into derivatives from ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm.

Multilineage Differentiating Stress-Enduring or Muse cells are found in bone marrow and the lower layers of the skin (dermis). Muse cells are a subpopulation of mesenchymal stem cells, and even express a few mesenchymal stem cell-specific genes (e.g., CD105, a cell-surface protein specific to mesenchymal stem cells). However, Muse cells also express cell surface proteins normally found in embryonic stem cells (e.g., stage-specific embryonic antigen-3, SSEA-3). Additionally, Muse cells have the ability to self-renew, and differentiate into cell types from all three embryonic germ layers, ectoderm (which forms skin and brain), mesoderm, (which forms muscle, bone, kidneys, gonads, heart, blood vessels, adrenal glands, and connective tissue), and endoderm (which forms the gastrointestinal tract and its associated tissues). Finally, Muse cells can home to damaged sites and spontaneously differentiate into tissue-specific cells as dictated by the microenvironment in which the cells find themselves.

A new publication by Fumitaka Ogura and others from Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine in Sendai, Japan and Saleh Heneidi from the Medical College of Georgia (Augusta, Georgia), and Gregorio Chazenbalk from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA has shown that Muse cells also exist in human fat.

The source of cells came from two places: commercially available fat tissue and freshly collected fat from human subjects, collected by means of liposuction. After growing these cells in culture, the mesenchymal stem cells and Muse cells grew steadily over the 3 weeks. Then the Dezawa research group used fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) to isolate from all these cells those cells that express SSEA-3 on their cell surfaces.

FACS uses antibodies conjugated to dyes that can bind to specific cell proteins. Once the antibodies bind to cells, the cells are sluiced through a small orifice while they are illuminated by the laser. The laser activates the dyes if the cell fluoresces, one door opens and the other closes. The cell goes to one test tube. If the cell does not fluoresce, then the door stay shut and another door opens and the cell goes into a different test tube.  In this way, cells with a particular cell-surface protein are isolated from other cells that do not have that cell-surface protein.

Fluorescent-Activated Cell Sorting
Fluorescent-Activated Cell Sorting

In addition to expression SSEA-3, the fat-based Muse cells expressed other mesenchymal stem cell-specific cell-surface proteins (CD29, CD90), but they did not express proteins usually thought to be diagnostic for fat-based mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) such as CD34 and CD146.  Muse cells also expressed pluripotency genes (Nanog, Oct3/4, PAR4, Sox2, and Tra-1-81).  The Muse cells grew in small clusters and some cell expressed ectodermal-specific genes (neurofilament, MAP2), others expressed mesodermal-specific genes (smooth muscle actin, NKX2) and endodermal-specific genes (alpha-fetoprotein, GATA6).  These data suggested that the cultured Muse cells were poised to form either ectoderm, mesodermal, or endodermal derivatives.

When transplanted into mice with non-functional immune systems, the Muse cells never formed any tumors or disrupted the normal structure of the nearly tissues.  When placed in differentiating media, fat-derived Muse cells differentiated into cells with neuron-like morphology that expressed neuron-specific genes (Tuj-1), liver cells, and fat.  When compared with Muse cells from bone marrow or skin, the fat-derived Muse cells were better at making bone, fat, and muscle, but not as good as bone marrow Muse cells at making neuronal cell types, but not as good at making glial cells.  Many of these assays were based on gene expression experiments and not more rigorous tests.  Therefore, the results of these experiments might be doubtful until they are corroborated by more rigorous experiments.

These cells are expandable and apparently rather safe to use.  More work needs to be done in order to fully understand the full regenerative capacity of these cells and protocols for handling them must also be developed.  However, hopefully pre-clinical experiments in rodents will give way to larger animal experiments.  If these are successful, then maybe human trials come next.  Here’s to hoping.

Forming Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Inside a Living Organism

A team from the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) has become the first research team to convert adult cells that are still within a living organism into cells that show characteristics of embryonic stem cells.

The CNIO researchers also say that these embryonic stem cells, which were obtained directly from inside an organism, have a broader capacity for differentiation than those obtained by means of an in vitro culture system. Specifically, they have the characteristics of totipotent cells, a primitive state never before obtained in a laboratory, according to the CNIO team.

Manuel Serrano, Ph.D., director of CNIO’s Molecular Oncology Program and head of the Tumor Suppression Laboratory, led this study. It was supported by Manuel Manzanares, Ph.D., and his team from the Spanish National Cardiovascular Research Centre.

The CNIO researchers say their work extends that of Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka, M.D., Ph.D., one step forward. Yamanaka opened a new horizon in regenerative medicine when, in 2006, he demonstrated that stem cells could be created from adult cells by using a cocktail of genes. But while Yamanaka induced his cells in culture in the lab (in vitro), the CNIO team created theirs directly in mice (in vivo). Generating these cells within an organism brings this technology even closer to regenerative medicine, they say.

In a study published online Sept. 11 in the journal Nature, the CNIO research team details how it used genetic manipulation techniques to create mice in which Dr. Yamanaka’s four genes could be activated at will. When these genes were activated, they observed that the adult cells were able to de-differentiate into embryonic stem cells in multiple tissues and organs.

María Abad, Ph.D., lead author of the article and a researcher in Dr. Serrano’s group, said, “This change of direction in development has never been observed in nature. We have demonstrated that we can also obtain embryonic stem cells in adult organisms and not only in the laboratory.”

Dr. Serrano added, “We can now start to think about methods for inducing regeneration locally and in a transitory manner for a particular damaged tissue.” Stem cells obtained in mice also show totipotent characteristics never generated in a laboratory. Totipotent cells can form all the cell types in a body, including the placental cells. Embryonic cells within the first couple of cell divisions after fertilization are the only cells that are totipotent.

The researchers reported that they were also able to induce the formation of pseudo-embryonic structures in the thoracic and abdominal cavities of the mice. These pseudo-embryos displayed the three layers typical of embryos (ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm), and extra-embryonic structures such as the vitelline membrane, which surrounds the egg, and even signs of blood cell formation, which first appears in the primary embryonic vesicle (otherwise known as the “yolk sac”).

“This data tell us that our stem cells are much more versatile than Dr. Yamanaka’s in vitro inducted pluripotent stem cells, whose potency generates the different layers of the embryo but never tissues that sustain the development of a new embryo, like the placenta,” the CNIO researcher said.  Below is a figure from their paper.  The pictures look pretty convincing.

a, Cysts in the abdominal cavity of a reprogrammable mouse. b, Frequency of embryo-like structures after intraperitoneal injection of in vivo iPS cells (3 clones), in vitro iPS cells (2 clones) and ES cells (JM8.F6). Fisher’s exact test: *P < 0.05. c, Cyst generated by intraperitoneal injection. Left panels, germ layer markers: SOX2 (ectoderm), T/BRACHYURY (mesoderm) and GATA4 (endoderm). Right panels, extraembryonic markers: CDX2 (trophectoderm), and AFP and CK8, both specific for visceral endoderm of the yolk sac. d, Cyst generated by intraperitoneal injection presenting TER-119+ nucleated erythrocytes and LYVE-1+ endothelial cells in structures resembling yolk sac blood islands.
a, Cysts in the abdominal cavity of a reprogrammable mouse. b, Frequency of embryo-like structures after intraperitoneal injection of in vivo iPS cells (3 clones), in vitro iPS cells (2 clones) and ES cells (JM8.F6). Fisher’s exact test: *P < 0.05. c, Cyst generated by intraperitoneal injection. Left panels, germ layer markers: SOX2 (ectoderm), T/BRACHYURY (mesoderm) and GATA4 (endoderm). Right panels, extraembryonic markers: CDX2 (trophectoderm), and AFP and CK8, both specific for visceral endoderm of the yolk sac. d, Cyst generated by intraperitoneal injection presenting TER-119+ nucleated erythrocytes and LYVE-1+ endothelial cells in structures resembling yolk sac blood islands.

The researchers emphasize that any possible therapeutic applications of their work are still distant, but they believe that it could mean a change of direction for stem cell research, regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.

“Our stem cells also survive outside of mice in a culture, so we can also manipulate them in a laboratory,” said Dr. Abad. “The next step is studying if these new stem cells are capable of efficiently generating different tissues such as that of the pancreas, liver or kidney.”

This paper is very interesting, but I find it rather unlikely that their approach will take regenerative medicine by storm.  Engineering mice to express these four genes in an inducible manner caused the formation of unusual tumors throughout the mice.  Maybe they can be coaxed to differentiate into kidney or heart muscle or whatever, but learning how to get them to do that will take a fair amount of in vitro work.  This is interesting, but I doubt that it will change the field overnight.

Gum-Based Stem Cells For Regenerative Medicine

The gums are also known as the gingivae, and this soft tissue serves as a biological barrier that covers the oral cavity of the maxillae and mandible (upper and lower jawbones). The gingivae also harbor a stem cell population known as gingival mesenchymal stem cells or GMSCs.

“Oh that’s a big surprise,” you say, “another mesenchymal stem cell population found in the body.” Well this one is a big deal because of its tissue of origin. Most MSCs are formed during embryonic development from cells that originate from the mesoderm, the embryonic tissue that lies between the skin of the embryo and the gut. Mesoderm forms the muscles, bones, connective tissue, adrenal glands, circulatory system, kidneys, gonads, and some other vitally important tissues.


However, in the head, a large number of tissues are formed from “neural crest cells.” Neural crest cells hail from the top of the neural tube, which is the beginnings of the spinal cord. The dorsal-most portion of the neural tube contains a population of cells that move out of the neural tube and colonize the embryo to form a whole host of tissues. These include: Neurons, including sensory ganglia, sympathetic and parasympathetic ganglia, and plexuses, Neuroglial cells, Schwann cells, Adrenal medulla, Calcitonin-secreting cells, Carotid body type I cells, Epidermal pigment cells, Facial cartilage and bone Facial and anterior ventral skull cartilage and bones, Corneal endothelium and stroma, Tooth papillae, Dermis, smooth muscle, and adipose tissue of skin of head and neck, Connective tissue of salivary, lachrymal, thymus, thyroid, and pituitary glands, Connective tissue and smooth muscle in arteries of aortic arch origin. Wow, that’s a lot of stuff. I think you can see that these neural crest cells are important players during embryonic development.


Songtao Shi, from the Ostrow School of Dentistry, University of Southern California and his co-workers demonstrated that approximately 90% of GMSCs are derived from cranial neural crest cells and 10% are derived from mesoderm. This is important because neural crest-based stem cells seem to have greater plasticity.

Shi and his team compared mesodermally derived MSCs with GMSCs and the neural crest derived MSCs have a greater ability to differentiate into neural cells and cartilage-making cells.

In a mouse model of colitis in which mice are fed dextran sulfate sodium, which induces colitis in the mice, the neural crest derived MSCs did a better job of relieving the inflammation associated with colitis than their mesodermally derived counterparts.

Shi admits that further research on these stem cells must be done in order to better understand them and their functional roles. Shi is especially interested in the functional interaction between the neural crest derived MSCs in the gum and the mesodermally derived MSCs. Also, their potential for suppressing inflammation in particular diseases of the immune system and wound healing needs to be examined in some detail.