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Stem cell-based therapy has recently been explored for the treatment of disorders of the enteric nervous system (ENS). Pluripotent embryonic stem (ES) cells represent an attractive cell source; however, little or no information is currently available on how ES cells will respond to the gut environment. In this study, we investigated the ability of ES cells to respond to environmental cues derived from the ENS and related tissues, both in vitro and in vivo.
Neurospheres were generated from mouse ES cells (ES-NS) and co-cultured with organotypic preparations of gut tissue consisting of the longitudinal muscle layers with the adherent myenteric plexus (LM-MP).
LM-MP co-culture led to a significant increase in the expression of pan-neuronal markers (βIII-tubulin, PGP 9.5) as well as more specialized markers (peripherin, nNOS) in ES-NS, both at the transcriptional and protein level. The increased expression was not associated with increased proliferation, thus confirming a true neurogenic effect. LM-MP preparations exerted also a myogenic effect on ES-NS, although to a lesser extent. After transplantation in vivo into the mouse pylorus, grafted ES-NS failed to acquire a distinct phenotype al least 1week following transplantation.
This is the first study reporting that the gut explants can induce neuronal differentiation of ES cells in vitro and induce the expression of nNOS, a key molecule in gastrointestinal motility regulation. The inability of ES-NS to adopt a neuronal phenotype after transplantation in the gastrointestinal tract is suggestive of the presence of local inhibitory influences that prevent ES-NS differentiation in vivo.