Direct Reprogramming Cells with Recombinant Proteins


In my opinion, for what it’s worth, we will probably see direct reprogramming take a prominent place in regenerative medicine in the future. It will not be in the near future, but as direct reprogramming becomes better understood and more feasible, it will probably become a central part of the discussion of regenerative medical strategies.

Direct reprogramming, which is also known as lineage conversion, uses cell type-specific transcription factors to convert a mature, adult cell into a different type of mature, adult cell. The cell does not pass through a pluripotent intermediate, and becomes a wholly different type of cell.

Of course, forcing the expression of lineage-specific transcription factors in cells requires that they be treated with recombinant viruses or other such tools. These genetic manipulations present problems for regenerative medicine, since such viruses can cause mutations or cause the introduced genes to be constantly activated, both of which can cause cells to die to grow uncontrollably. Genetically engineering cells needs to be done in a “kinder and gentler” way (to quote George HW Bush).

To that end Dennis Clegg and his colleagues from the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering at UC Santa Barbara have used specially designed proteins to directly cultured retinal pigmented epithelial cells to neurons.

Newly discovered C-end rule (CendR) cell- and tissue-penetrating peptides have a arginine-rich sequence at the end of proteins that allows them to bind particular cell receptors and be internalized into the cell. These CendR peptides bind to the NRP-1 protein and are internalized. Several laboratories have used CendR peptides to increase the efficacy of anti-cancer drugs in experimental cases (see Alberici L, et al (2013) Cancer Res 73:804–812; Sugahara KN, et al. (2010) Science 328:1031–1035; Sugahara KN, et al. (2009) Cancer Cell 16:510–520; and Roth L,, et al. (2012) Oncogene 31:3754–3763).

By tacking a CendR peptide to the end of the Sox2 protein, Clegg and others were able to convert retinal pigmented epithelial (RPEs) cells to neurons. The Sox2 protein is highly expressed in neural progenitor cells. Other studies have shown that Sox2 can reprogram mouse and human fibroblasts to neural stem cells (Ring KL, et al. (2012) Cell Stem Cell 11:100–109). Thus, Sox2 should do the trick.

Making cultured RPE cells from embryonic stem cells is relatively easy to do. Therefore, Clegg and his coworkers made cultured RPEs and then treated them with viruses that expressed Sox2. The cultured RPEs showed conversion to neurons and the expression of neuron-specific genes.

Since they had established that Sox2 could convert RPEs to neurons, they tried recombinant Sox2 protein with the CendR peptide RPARPAR at the end of the protein. After 60 days in culture, the cells expressed a host of neuron-specific genes, and were capable of taking up a dye that only active neurons can take up (FM1-43).

Reprogramming human fetal RPE (hfRPE) cells to neurons using recombinant SOX2 proteins. (A): Efficiency of hfRPE cells to be reprogrammed to neuron-like cells after recombinant proteins was added to the media every 24 hours for 30 days. (B): Efficiency of hfRPE cells to be reprogrammed by adding SOX2-RPARPAR recombinant protein every 48 hours for different time courses. (C): Representative images of hfRPE (fRPE1914) cells during reprogramming to neuron-like cells after 30, 40, and 50 days in culture with SOX2-RPARPAR protein. Scale bars = 100 μm. (D): Representative images of hfRPE (fRPE1914) cells reprogrammed to neuron-like cells expressing neuronal markers, but not an RPE marker (PAX6), using SOX2-RPARPAR protein. Scale bars = 50 μm. Abbreviations: D, days; RPE, retinal pigmented epithelial cells.
Reprogramming human fetal RPE (hfRPE) cells to neurons using recombinant SOX2 proteins. (A): Efficiency of hfRPE cells to be reprogrammed to neuron-like cells after recombinant proteins was added to the media every 24 hours for 30 days. (B): Efficiency of hfRPE cells to be reprogrammed by adding SOX2-RPARPAR recombinant protein every 48 hours for different time courses. (C): Representative images of hfRPE (fRPE1914) cells during reprogramming to neuron-like cells after 30, 40, and 50 days in culture with SOX2-RPARPAR protein. Scale bars = 100 μm. (D): Representative images of hfRPE (fRPE1914) cells reprogrammed to neuron-like cells expressing neuronal markers, but not an RPE marker (PAX6), using SOX2-RPARPAR protein. Scale bars = 50 μm. Abbreviations: D, days; RPE, retinal pigmented epithelial cells.

The efficiency for this experiment was lousy (0.3%) as opposed to the efficiency for the use of recombinant viruses (11%). Nevertheless, this experiment shows that it is possible to directly reprogram cells without using recombinant viruses.

Turning Adult Cells into Early Stage Neurons and Bypassing the Pluripotent Cell Stage


Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison have converted skin cells from monkeys and humans into early neural stem cells that can form a wide variety of nervous system-specific cells. This reprogramming did not require converting adult cells into induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs. Su-Chun Zhang, professor of neuroscience and neurology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, served as the senior author of this research. Bypassing the ultraflexible iPSC stage was the key advantage in this research, accord to Zhang.

Zhang added, “IPSC cells [sic] can generate any cell type , which could be a problem for cell-based therapy to repair damage due to disease in the nervous system.” In particular, the absence of iPSCs greatly reduces the risk of tumor formation in the recipient of the stem cell therapy.

There is a second advantage to this procedure. Namely that iPSC generation usually requires the recombinant viruses that deliver genes to the adult cells. These viruses, retroviruses, insert their genes directly into the genomes of the host cell. While there are ways are using such viruses, the use of retroviruses is definitely the most popular strategy for converting adult cells into iPSCs.

Retroviral life cycle
Retroviral life cycle

However, the procedure used in Zhang’s laboratory, utilized recombinant Sendai viruses that do not integrate their genes into the genome of the host cell, but expressed them transiently, after which, the exogenous genes are degraded.

Sendai virus
Sendai virus

Jaingfeng Lu, a postdoctoral researcher in Zhang’s lab, removed skin cells from monkeys and people, and exposed them to recombinant Sendai viruses that contained the four genes normally used to make iPSCs for 24 hours. Then Lu heated the cells to thirty-nine degrees to kill the viruses and prevent the cells from becoming iPSCs. However, 13 days later, Lu found that the cells had become induced neural progenitors or iNPs. When implanted into newborn mice, the iNPs grew normally and differentiated into neural cell types without forming any tumors.

While other researchers have managed to convert adult cells directly into neurons, Zhang admitted that he had a different goal. “our idea was to turn skin cells into neural progenitors, cells that can produce cells relating to the neural tissue. These progenitors can be propagated in large numbers.”

the research overcomes limitations of previous efforts, according to Zhang. The Sendai, which produces little more than a cold, is not a severe pathogen, does not integrate its genes into the genome of the host cell, does not cause tumors, and is considered safe, since it can be killed by heat within 24 hours. This illustrates how fevers in our bodies can kill off cold viruses. Secondly, the iNPs have a greater ability to grow in culture. Third, iNPs are far enough along in their differentiation so that they can only form nervous system-specific cell types. They cannot form muscle or live. However, the iNPs can form many more specialized cells.

Interestingly, the neurons produced from the iNPs had the characteristics of neurons normally formed in the back part of the brain, something that is potentially helpful. As Zhang noted, “For therapeutic use, it is essential to use specific types of neural progenitors. We need region-specific and function-specific neuronal types for specific neurological diseases.”

Progenitor cells grown from the skin of ALS or spinal muscular atrophy patients can be used to make a whole host of neural cells in order to model each disease and allow rapid drug screening. Such cells could also be used to treat patients with neurological disease too.

“These transplantation experiments confirmed that the reprogrammed cells indeed belong to ells of the intended brain regions and the progenitors produced the three major classes of neural cells: neurons, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes. This proof-of-principle study highlights the possibility to generate [sic] many specialized neural progenitors for specific neurological disorders.”

Neural progenitors
Neural progenitors

Lu, Jianfeng, Liu, Huisheng, Huang, Cindy Tzu-Ling, Chen, Hong, Du, Zhongwei, Liu, Yan, Sherafat, Mohammad Amin, Zhang, Su-Chun.  Generation of Integration-free and Region-Specific Neural Progenitors from Primate Fibroblasts.  2013/05/02. Cell Reports 2211-1247. http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S221112471300171X