During an individual’s lifetime, blood-forming cells in the bone marrow called hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) supply all the red and white blood cells needed to sustain life. These blood stem cells are unique because they can make an identical copy of themselves (self-renew). Disorders of the blood system can be terminal, but such diseases may be cured when patients are treated with a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, bone marrow is in short supply due to limited availability of donors, and it is not yet possible to expand HSCs outside of the human body; HSCs that are removed from their native environment, or niche, rapidly lose their ability to self-renew and thus cannot sustain hematopoiesis in a transplant recipient. Furthermore, attempts to make blood stem cells from embryonic stem cells (ESCs) have also proved unsuccessful to date because these “tailored HSCs” are defective in self-renewal as well. These problems suggest that our understanding of the biology of HSCs is not sufficient to foster their maintenance or generation. To address this issue, we propose to study hematopoietic stem cells in the context of mammalian development; the entire complement of a person’s HSCs is made in a very short time window during the first trimester of pregnancy. By increasing our understanding of how HSCs are made and acquire self-renewal in vivo, we hope to develop better methods of generating HSCs in vitro and learn to provide the missing cues to coax them into becoming fully functional, self-renewing hematopoietic stem cells. Specifically, we plan to investigate how the fate decision that delineates blood cells from their embryonic precursor, called specification, is maintained at the molecular level. Second, we are interested in what cell type human HSCs descend from so as to understand what precursor to look for when attempting to differentiate ESCs into blood stem cells. Finally, we plan to apply molecular analyses to the property of self-renewal by looking at cell populations that cover a spectrum with regards to self-renewal: HSCs, cultured HSCs (not self-renewing), HSC precursors (not self-renewing), and ESCs differentiated to non-self-renewing HSCs. These comparisons will help define the molecular regulation of self-renewal, and place ESC-derived progenitors on the spectrum of self-renewal. Through these studies, we hope to better understand blood stem cells as they are made and maintained during human development with the ultimate goal to provide wider access to stem cell-based therapies.
Funding of research to understand hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) biology offers rewards beyond the pursuit of knowledge. HSCs are responsible for providing all of the blood cells in the body, including both red cells that carry oxygen and white cells that mediate immunity. Inherited disorders affecting HSCs and their progeny are responsible for diseases such as sickle cell anemia, Severe Combined Immunity Disorder (SCID), and leukemia; these devastating ailments change the lives of thousands of people in California every year, and currently most are incurable without a bone marrow or cord blood transplant. Due to the limited availability of donors, other alternatives, such as differentiating embryonic stem cells (ESCs) into HSCs, are being explored. One critical fault of ESC-derived progenitors is their inability to “self-renew”, i.e. produce more of themselves, thus eliminating their usefulness for transplantation. However, a deeper understanding of the developmental and molecular processes that create functional HSCs that can self-renew may ultimately make the goal of deriving HSCs from ESCs attainable. Research into the mechanisms of self-renewal may also improve treatments of cancers such as leukemia, as these diseases are a function of over-proliferation of cells caused by uncontrolled self-renewal; targeting genes or proteins involved in abnormal self-renewal programs may provide more specific cancer fighting drugs, and would likely foster collaborations with biotechnology companies. Furthermore, as all stem cells in the body have the ability to self-renew, a clear understanding of self-renewal mechanisms will benefit all stem cell research, and could have a positive effect in a wide range of biomedical specialties.
The goal of this grant is to investigate the cell intrinsic mechanisms that govern hematopoietic stem cell specification and self-renewal. During the second year of this award, we have further elucidated the regulatory mechanisms that dictate hematopoietic fate specification by validating the target genes that Scl/tal1 activates and represses in vivo (Aim 1). We have also shown that loss of Scl results not only results in loss of all blood cells, but also causes defective arterio-venous identity that precludes generation of hemogenic endothelium and hematopoietic stem cells. We have defined the phenotype of hemogenic endothelium and emerging HSCs in both mouse and human embryos (Aim 2), and identified novel markers that can be used to isolate developing HSCs at distinct stages, as well as to purify functional HSCs further (Aim 3). We have also established an inducible lentiviral based expression system that will now be used to test functionally candidate HSC regulators that were identified by comparing gene expression profiles between freshly isolated HSCs and dysfunctional HSCs that were expanded in culture or generated from human ES cells. We hope that these studies will provide better understanding of the key regulatory mechanisms that govern HSC properties, and ultimately lead to development of improved methods for generation of functional HSCs in culture.
Our work has focused on defining mechanisms that govern the specification and self-renewal of hematopoietic stem cells during mouse and human development. Using gene targeted mouse ES cells and mouse embryos, we defined the transcriptional programs that are regulated by Scl, the master regulator for blood formation. We discovered that Scl not only establishes the transcriptional programs that are critical for specifying hemogenic endothelium and hematopoietic stem cells, but it also represses heart development. Strikingly, in the absence of Scl, hemogenic endothelium in embryonic hematopoietic tissues becomes converted to cardiogenic fate, and gives rise to fully functional, beating cardiomyocytes.
In order to define the key programs that distinguish self-renewing HSCs from their downstream progenitors or the compromised HSPCs (hematopoietic stem/progenitor cells) that were generated in vitro, we performed microarray analysis for human phenotypic HSCs from various sources. We identified novel markers for human HSCs that can be used to purify transplantable HSCs to a higher purity. We have identified key molecular defects in HSCs that are expanded in culture, or generated from human ES cells. We have further validated that dysregulation of certain Hox genes is a major bottleneck for generating functional HSCs from human ES cells. Future studies are focused on establishing methods that would allow correction of the compromised HSC regulatory networks in cultured HSCs.
We have defined key regulatory mechanisms that are required for generation and maintenance of blood forming stem cells. We showed that transcription factor Scl is critical for specifying hemogenic endothelium from where blood stem cells emerge, and moreover, we discovered and unexpected repressive function for Scl to suppress cardiomyogenesis; in the absence of Scl, the blood vessels in start to generate beating cardiomyocytes. We have also identified factors that are critical for blood stem cells to maintain the unique properties: to self-renew (make more of themselves) and engraft (interact with the niche cells that support them). We will now continue to define how these key regulators act so that we can design better strategies to generate blood stem cells as well as heart muscle precursors for therapeutic applications.
The goal of this grant was to define mechanisms that govern blood stem cell specification and self-renewal. We have completed the studies on hematopoietic fate specification by defining how Scl/tal1 establishes hemogenic endothelium. We documented that, in addition to Scl’s critical function in activating blood cell regulators, Scl also has to repress heart factors to prevent the misspecification of blood precursors to heart muscle. We documented that Scl controls blood and heart regulators through enhancers that have been primed for activation prior to Scl action (Aim 1). We identified a new surface marker that is expressed in hemogenic endothelium and blood forming cells in the yolk sac (Lyve1), which provides new tools to investigate the origin of blood stem and progenitor cells during development (Aim 2). We identified GPI-80 as a novel marker for transplantable blood stem cells during human fetal development (Aim 2, 3). Taking advantage of this new marker for blood stem cells, we narrowed down the critical defects in the dysfunctional blood precursors that are generated from human ES cells, or expanded in culture from fetal liver blood stem cells (Aim 3). We showed that the inability to induce HOXA cluster genes and other novel blood stem cell regulators that cannot be sustained in culture hinder the generation of blood stem cells from pluripotent cells, and further validated these novel regulators using lentiviral knockdown and overexpression. These findings will now be used to develop novel strategies to generate blood stem cells in culture.