Synergistic induction of blood-brain barrier properties

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2024 May 21;121(21):e2316006121. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2316006121. Epub 2024 May 15.


Blood-brain barrier (BBB) models derived from human stem cells are powerful tools to improve our understanding of cerebrovascular diseases and to facilitate drug development for the human brain. Yet providing stem cell-derived endothelial cells with the right signaling cues to acquire BBB characteristics while also retaining their vascular identity remains challenging. Here, we show that the simultaneous activation of cyclic AMP and Wnt/β-catenin signaling and inhibition of the TGF-β pathway in endothelial cells robustly induce BBB properties in vitro. To target this interaction, we present a small-molecule cocktail named cARLA, which synergistically enhances barrier tightness in a range of BBB models across species. Mechanistically, we reveal that the three pathways converge on Wnt/β-catenin signaling to mediate the effect of cARLA via the tight junction protein claudin-5. We demonstrate that cARLA shifts the gene expressional profile of human stem cell-derived endothelial cells toward the in vivo brain endothelial signature, with a higher glycocalyx density and efflux pump activity, lower rates of endocytosis, and a characteristic endothelial response to proinflammatory cytokines. Finally, we illustrate how cARLA can improve the predictive value of human BBB models regarding the brain penetration of drugs and targeted nanoparticles. Due to its synergistic effect, high reproducibility, and ease of use, cARLA has the potential to advance drug development for the human brain by improving BBB models across laboratories.

Keywords: blood–brain barrier; drug delivery; endothelial cell; in vitro models; signaling pathways.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood-Brain Barrier* / metabolism
  • Claudin-5 / genetics
  • Claudin-5 / metabolism
  • Cyclic AMP / metabolism
  • Endothelial Cells* / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Stem Cells / cytology
  • Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Tight Junctions / metabolism
  • Wnt Signaling Pathway
  • beta Catenin / metabolism