Aims: Despite the diverse developmental origins of vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs), recent attempts to generate VSMCs from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) differentiated along various lineages did not yield distinct cell phenotypes. The aim of this study was to derive and characterize functional coronary-like VSMCs from hESCs using serum-free cardiac-directed differentiation.
Methods and results: Embryoid bodies (EBs) from three pluripotent stem cell lines subjected to cardiac-directed differentiation in defined media were characterized over 30 days for VSMC-specific gene expression by qRT-PCR, immunofluorescence microscopy and fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS). EBs composed of cardiomyocytes, endothelial cells (ECs), fibroblasts, and VSMCs underwent FACS on d28 to reveal that the VSMCs form a distinct subpopulation, which migrate with ECs in an in vitro angiogenesis assay. To enrich for VSMCs, d28 EBs were dissociated and cultured as monolayers. Over several passages, mRNA and protein levels of cardiomyocyte, endothelial, and fibroblast markers were abolished, whereas those of mature VSMCs were unchanged. Vascular endothelial growth factor and basic fibroblast growth factor were critical for the separation of the cardiac and VSMC lineages in EBs, and for the enrichment of functional VSMCs in monolayer cultures. Calcium cycling and cell shortening responses to vasoconstrictors in hESC-derived VSMCs in vitro were indistinguishable from primary human coronary artery SMCs, and distinct from bladder and aorta SMCs. VSMCs identically derived from green fluorescent protein -expressing hESCs integrated in and contributed to new vessel formation in vivo.
Conclusion: The ability to generate hESC-derived functional human coronary-like VSMCs in serum-free conditions has implications for disease modelling, drug screening, and regenerative therapies.