“Other teams have shown promising results using novel approaches for HSC ex vivo expansion, including the addition of small molecules, certain hydrogels, various growth factors, or small molecule inhibitors to the cell culture media,” explains Professor Satoshi Yamazaki, senior author of the study.
Though cytokines were once believed to be indispensable for ex vivo HSC growth, the research team hypothesized other new approaches as suitable alternatives. Starting with mouse HSCs, they previously found that albumin could be replaced by a synthetic polymer. This not only overcame the albumin-related problem of variability between batches used in different experiments, but also prevented the negative effects of impurities that commonly arise.
When the research team applied this method to human HSCs, they noted less robust proliferation than in mouse HSCs. After molecular analysis, they observed decreased activity of vital signalling molecules called PI3K and AKT. To address this, they found that adding chemicals for activating PI3K and AKT could significantly improve human HSC growth.
“We also found that adding a receptor agonist chemical known as butyzamide could stimulate cell proliferation, providing a good alternative to cytokines that were commonly used in the past,” describes Prof. Yamazaki.
Adding a compound called UM171, as well as a specific polymer, improved the results by supporting long-term HSC expansion. Using RNA sequencing, the team confirmed the successful effects of this system on gene expression in individual cells. Furthermore, transplanting the HSCs into mice supported engraftment and growth of the cells that were expanded using their new culture system.
Given the importance of ex vivo expansion of human HSCs, the newly established system using an optimal chemically-defined cell culture medium provides a suitable alternative to systems using typical cytokine-containing media. This work may help advance various HSC-related therapeutics in clinical development and potentially save lives.