Background: Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) can proliferate endlessly and are able to differentiate into all cell lineages that make up the adult organism. Under particular in vitro culture conditions, ESCs can be expanded and induced to differentiate into cardiomyocytes in stirred suspension bioreactors (SSBs). However, in using these systems we must be cognizant of the mechanical forces acting upon the cells. The effect of mechanical forces and shear stress on ESC pluripotency and differentiation has yet to be clarified. The purpose of this study was to investigate the impact of the suspension culture environment on ESC pluripotency during cardiomyocyte differentiation.
Results: Murine D3-MHC-neo(r) ESCs formed embyroid bodies (EBs) and differentiated into cardiomyocytes over 25 days in static culture and suspension bioreactors. G418 (Geneticin) was used in both systems from day 10 to enrich for cardiomyocytes by eliminating non-resistant, undifferentiated cells. Treatment of EBs with 1 mM ascorbic acid and 0.5% dimethyl sulfoxide from day 3 markedly increased the number of beating EBs, which displayed spontaneous and cadenced contractile beating on day 11 in the bioreactor. Our results showed that the bioreactor differentiated cells displayed the characteristics of fully functional cardiomyocytes. Remarkably, however, our results demonstrated that the bioreactor differentiated ESCs retained their ability to express pluripotency markers, to form ESC-like colonies, and to generate teratomas upon transplantation, whereas the cells differentiated in adherent culture lost these characteristics.
Conclusions: This study demonstrates that although cardiomyocyte differentiation can be achieved in stirred suspension bioreactors, the addition of medium enhancers is not adequate to force complete differentiation as fluid shear forces appear to maintain a subpopulation of cells in a transient pluripotent state. The development of successful ESC differentiation protocols within suspension bioreactors demands a more complete understanding of the impacts of shear forces on the regulation of pluripotency and differentiation in pluripotent stem cells.