Background: Intervertebral disc (IVD) degeneration is characterized by an early decrease in cellularity of the nucleus pulposus (NP) region, and associated extracellular matrix changes, reduced hydration, and progressive degeneration. Cell-based IVD therapy has emerged as an area of great interest, with studies reporting regenerative potential for many cell sources, including autologous or allogeneic chondrocytes, primary IVD cells, and stem cells. Few approaches, however, have clear strategies to promote the NP phenotype, in part due to a limited knowledge of the defined markers and differentiation protocols for this lineage. Here, we developed a new protocol for the efficient differentiation of human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) into NP-like cells in vitro. This differentiation strategy derives from our knowledge of the embryonic notochordal lineage of NP cells as well as strategies used to support healthy NP cell phenotypes for primary cells in vitro. Methods: An NP-genic phenotype of hiPSCs was promoted in undifferentiated hiPSCs using a stepwise, directed differentiation toward mesodermal, and subsequently notochordal, lineages via chemically defined medium and growth factor supplementation. Fluorescent cell imaging was used to test for pluripotency markers in undifferentiated cells. RT-PCR was used to test for potential cell lineages at the early stage of differentiation. Cells were checked for NP differentiation using immunohistochemistry and histological staining at the end of differentiation. To enrich notochordal progenitor cells, hiPSCs were transduced using lentivirus containing reporter constructs for transcription factor brachyury (T) promoter and green fluorescent protein (GFP) fluorescence, and then sorted on T expression based on GFP intensity by flow cytometry. Results: Periods of pellet culture following initial induction were shown to promote the vacuolated NP cell morphology and NP surface marker expression, including CD24, LMα5, and Basp1. Enrichment of brachyury (T) positive cells using fluorescence-activated cell sorting was shown to further enhance the differentiation efficiency of NP-like cells. Conclusions: The ability to efficiently differentiate human iPSCs toward NP-like cells may provide insights into the processes of NP cell differentiation and provide a cell source for the development of new therapies for IVD diseases.
- Degenerative disc disease
- Directed differentiation
- Human induced pluripotent stem cells
- Intervertebral disc
- Nucleus pulposus