Research ArticleCELL BIOLOGY

Directed differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells to blood-brain barrier endothelial cells

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Science Advances  08 Nov 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 11, e1701679
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701679

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The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is composed of specialized endothelial cells that are critical to neurological health. A key tool for understanding human BBB development and its role in neurological disease is a reliable and scalable source of functional brain microvascular endothelial cells (BMECs). Human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) can theoretically generate unlimited quantities of any cell lineage in vitro, including BMECs, for disease modeling, drug screening, and cell-based therapies. We demonstrate a facile, chemically defined method to differentiate hPSCs to BMECs in a developmentally relevant progression via small-molecule activation of key signaling pathways. hPSCs are first induced to mesoderm commitment by activating canonical Wnt signaling. Next, these mesoderm precursors progress to endothelial progenitors, and treatment with retinoic acid leads to acquisition of BBB-specific markers and phenotypes. hPSC-derived BMECs generated via this protocol exhibit endothelial properties, including tube formation and low-density lipoprotein uptake, as well as efflux transporter activities characteristic of BMECs. Notably, these cells exhibit high transendothelial electrical resistance above 3000 ohm·cm2. These hPSC-derived BMECs serve as a robust human in vitro BBB model that can be used to study brain disease and inform therapeutic development.

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