The endocannabinoid system (ECS) regulates multiple aspects of human epithelial physiology, including inhibition/stimulation of keratinocyte proliferation/apoptosis, respectively. Yet, how the ECS impacts on human adult epithelial stem cell (eSC) functions remains unknown. Scalp hair follicles (HFs) offer a clinically relevant, prototypic model system for studying this directly within the native human stem cell niche. Here, we show in organ-cultured human HFs that, unexpectedly, selective activation of cannabinoid receptor-1 (CB1)-mediated signalling via the MAPK (MEK/Erk 1/2) and Akt pathways significantly increases the number and proliferation of cytokeratin CK15+ or CK19+ human HF bulge eSCs in situ, and enhances CK15 promoter activity in situ. In striking contrast, CB1-stimulation promotes apoptosis in the differentiated progeny of these eSCs (CK6+ HF keratinocytes). Instead, intrafollicular CB1 gene knockdown or CB1 antagonist treatment significantly reduces human HF eSCs numbers and stimulates their apoptosis, while CB1 knockout mice exhibit a reduced bulge eSCs pool in vivo. This identifies "tonic" CB1 signalling as a required survival stimulus for adult human HF eSCs within their niche. This novel concept must be taken into account whenever the human ECS is targeted therapeutically.
Keywords: cannabinoid receptor; epithelial stem cell; hair follicle; proliferation; survival.
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