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Stem Cells Dev. 2009 May;18(4):641-51. doi: 10.1089/scd.2008.0010.

Analysis of the factors that limit the ability of feeder cells to maintain the undifferentiated state of human embryonic stem cells.

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Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-0617, USA.


Human embryonic stem cell (hESC) culture is routinely performed using inactivated mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs) as a feeder cell layer (FL). Although these cells maintain pluripotency of hESCs, the molecular basis for this is unknown. Objectives of this study were to determine whether timing between MEF inactivation and their use as a FL influenced hESC growth and differentiation, and to begin defining the mechanism(s) involved. hESCs were plated on MEFs prepared 1 (MEF-1), 4 (MEF-4), and 7 (MEF-7) days earlier. hESC colony morphology and Oct3/4 expression levels were evaluated to determine the influence of different FLs. Significant enhancement of hESC growth (self-renewal) was observed on MEF-1 compared with MEF-4 and/or MEF-7. Conditioned media (CM) collected from MEF-1 supported significantly better hESC growth in a FL-free system compared to MEF-7 CM. Effects of MEFs on hESC growth were not caused by differences in cell density or viability, although indications of apoptosis were observed in MEF-7. Scanning electron microscopy demonstrated that MEF-7 were morphologically distinct from MEF-1 and MEF-4. Microarray analysis identified 19 genes related to apoptosis with significantly different levels of expression between MEF-1 and MEF-7. Several differentially expressed RNAs had gene ontology classifications associated with extracellular matrix (ECM) structural constituents and growth factors. Because members of Wnt signaling pathway were identified in the array analysis, we examined the ability of the Wnt1 CM and secreted frizzled-related proteins to affect hESC growth and differentiation. The addition of Wnt1 CM to both MEF-1 and MEF-7 significantly increased the number of undifferentiated colonies, while the addition of Sfrps promoted differentiation. Together, these results suggest that microenvironment, ECM, and soluble factors expressed by MEF-1 are significantly better at maintaining self-renewal and pluripotency of hESCs. Our findings have important implications in the optimization of hESC culture when MEFs are used as FL or CM is used in FL-free culture.

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