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Mol Cell Proteomics. 2014 Apr;13(4):990-1007. doi: 10.1074/mcp.M113.033423. Epub 2014 Jan 30.

Cleavage of E-cadherin and β-catenin by calpain affects Wnt signaling and spheroid formation in suspension cultures of human pluripotent stem cells.

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Institute for Cellular Chemistry, Hannover Medical School, 30625 Hannover, Germany;


The envisioned clinical and industrial use of human pluripotent stem cells and their derivatives has given major momentum to the establishment of suspension culture protocols that enable the mass production of cells. Understanding molecular changes accompanying the transfer from adherent to suspension culture is of utmost importance because this information can have a direct effect on the development of optimized culture conditions. In this study we assessed the gene expression of human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells grown in surface-adherent culture (two-dimensional) versus free-floating suspension culture spheroids (three-dimensional). We combined a quantitative proteomic approach based on stable isotope labeling by amino acids in cell culture with deep-sequencing-based transcriptomics. Cells in three-dimensional culture showed reduced expression of proteins forming structural components of cell-cell and cell-extracellular matrix junctions. However, fully unexpected, we found up-regulation of secreted inhibitors of the canonical Wnt signaling pathway and, concomitantly, a reduction in the level of active β-catenin and in the expression of Wnt target genes. In Western blot analyses the cysteine protease calpain was shown to cleave E-cadherin and β-catenin under three-dimensional culture conditions. Our data allowed the development of a model in which calpain cleavage of E-cadherin induces the disintegration of focal cell contacts and generates a 100-kDa E-cadherin fragment required for the formation of three-dimensional cell-cell contacts in spheroids. The parallel release of β-catenin and its potential activation by calpain cleavage are counterbalanced by the overexpression of soluble Wnt pathway inhibitors. According to this model, calpain has a key function in the interplay between E-cadherin and β-catenin-mediated intercellular adhesion and the canonical Wnt signaling pathway. Supporting this model, we show that pharmacological modulation of calpain activity prevents spheroid formation and causes disassembly of preexisting spheroids into single cells, thereby providing novel strategies for improving suspension culture conditions for human pluripotent stem cells in the future.

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