A major limitation of the widespread use of stem cells in a variety of biotechnological applications is the relatively low level of knowledge about how to maintain these cells in vitro without losing the long-term multilineage growth properties required for their clinical utility. An experimental and theoretical framework for predicting and controlling the outcome of stem cell stimulation by exogenous cytokines would thus be useful. An emerging theme from recent hematopoietic stem cell (HSC)-expansion studies is that a net gain in HSC numbers requires the maintenance of critical signaling ligand(s) above a threshold level. These ligand-receptor complex thresholds can be maintained, for example, by high concentrations of soluble cytokines or by cytokine presentation on cell surfaces. According to such a model, when the relevant ligand-receptor interaction falls below this threshold level, the probability of a differentiation response is increased; otherwise, self-renewal is favored. Taking advantage of the ability of the cytokine leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF) to maintain embryonic stem (ES) cell pluripotentiality at high concentrations, we are testing this model by investigating critical parameters in the control of ES cell responses. We have developed quantitative assays of ES cell differentiation by measuring cell-surface alkaline phosphatase activity, cell-surface stage specific embryonic antigen (SSEA)-1 expression, and the ability of ES cells to form embryoid bodies. Examination of ES cell responses over a range of LIF concentrations shows that LIF supplementation has little effect on ES cell-growth rate but significantly alters the probability of a cell undergoing a self-renewal vs. a differentiation division. In vitro culture parameters such as inoculum cell density, medium exchange, as well as cell-intrinsic processes such as autocrine secretion are shown to affect this decision. In addition to yielding new information on stem cell regulation by exogenous factors, these studies provide important clues about culture of these cells and should stimulate further investigations into the mechanistic basis of stem cell differentiation control.
Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Biotechnol Bioeng 69: 607-617, 2000.