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Histol Histopathol. 2013 Sep;28(9):1109-16. doi: 10.14670/HH-28.1109. Epub 2013 Apr 16.

Commonly used mesenchymal stem cell markers and tracking labels: Limitations and challenges.

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Knuppe Molecular Urology Laboratory, Department of Urology, School of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, California 94143-0738, USA.


Early observations that cultured mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) could be induced to exhibit certain characteristics of osteocytes and chondrocytes led to the proposal that they could be transplanted for tissue repair through cellular differentiation. Therefore, many subsequent preclinical studies with transplanted MSCs have strived to demonstrate that cellular differentiation was the underlying mechanism for the therapeutic effect. These studies generally followed the minimal criteria set by The International Society for Cellular Therapy in assuring MSC identity by using CD70, CD90, and CD105 as positive markers and CD34 as a negative marker. However, the three positive markers are co-expressed in a wide variety of cells, and therefore, even when used in combination, they are certainly incapable of identifying MSCs in vivo. Another frequently used MSC marker, Stro-1, has been shown to be an endothelial antigen and whether it can identify MSCs in vivo remains unknown. On the other hand, the proposed negative marker CD34 has increasingly been shown to be expressed in native MSCs, such as in the adipose tissue. It has also helped establish that MSCs are likely vascular stem cells (VSCs) that reside in the capillaries and in the adventitia of larger blood vessels. These cells do not express CD31, CD104b, or α-SMA, and therefore are designated as CD34+CD31-CD140b-SMA-. Many preclinical MSC transplantation studies have also attempted to demonstrate cellular differentiation by using labeled MSCs. However, all commonly used labels have shortcomings that often complicate data interpretation. The β-gal (LacZ) gene as a label is problematic because many mammalian tissues have endogenous β-gal activities. The GFP gene is similarly problematic because many mammalian tissues are endogenously fluorescent. The cell membrane label DiI can be adsorbed by host cells, and nuclear stains Hoechst dyes and DAPI can be transferred to host cells. Thymidine analog BrdU is associated with loss of cellular protein antigenicity due to harsh histological conditions. Newer thymidine analog EdU is easier to detect by chemical reaction to azide-conjugated Alexa fluors, but certain bone marrow cells are reactive to these fluors in the absence of EdU. These caveats need to be taken into consideration when designing or interpreting MSC transplantation experiments.

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