Homeobox (HOX) genes play critical roles in normal anterior-posterior patterning of embryonic development, and in hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) development. Conversely, dysregulated expressions of HOX-regulating factors such as CDX2 (Caudal) and MLL (Mixed Lineage Leukemia) are directly linked to development of acute leukemia. Although CDX family (e.g. cdx4) and mll factors play important roles in murine HSC development, their role in normal human embryonic blood development is obscure. The role of CDX genes (e.g., CDX1, CDX2, CDX4), expressed exclusively during embryonic development, is difficult to evaluate in human hematopoietic development, since fetal tissue is difficult to obtain. Our group has developed a human embryonic stem cell (hESC) differentiation system that recapitulates the 2nd–6th gestational weeks of human yolk sac (YS) development, and initiates from an embryonic hemangioblastic progenitor of primitive and definitive hematopoiesis. The role of HOX-regulating genes (and also HOX-regulating microRNAs (miRNAs), e.g., mir196) that regulate the earliest stages of human hematopoietic development can therefore be studied directly in vitro using our hESC model. We tested the effects of pulsatile, transient over-expression of HOX-regulating factors and miRNAs on the generation of primitive and definitive hematopoeitic progenitors during human embryoid body (hEB) differentiation. Since expression of HOX-regulating genes and miRNAs follow temporal, transient expression patterns during normal embryonic, and also hEB development, we developed a methodology that allows similar transient expression of DNA and RNA molecules at multiple time points of advancing hEB differentiation. This method, termed whole embryoid body (WEB) nucleofection was optimized using GFP-expressing DNA constructs, GFP-silencing siRNA, and also miRNA molecules within intact, whole hEB. WEB nucleofection allowed expression in 15–90% of day 4–9 hEB cells without disrupting their three-dimensional structural integrity, and with minimal toxicity. GFP-nucleofected day 5–13 hEB demonstrated peak expression levels at 48 hrs post-nucleofection, and expression was sustained for approximately one week. A FITC-labeled dsRNA oligonucleotide, was used to demonstrate that the efficiency of WEB nucleofection with RNA molecules approached ∼90%. WEB nucleofection was utilized to transiently over-express CDX2 and MLL constructs within intact, developing hEBs, and the effects on generation of hEB-derived primitive and definitive hematopoiesis were assayed by colony-forming cell (CFC), and FACS analysis. CDX2 and MLL-nucleofected hEB each produced 5-10X greater amounts of multipotent, mixed CFU, in comparison to controls. Moreover, MLL-nucleofected hEB demonstrated a bias toward development of definitive erythroid progenitors. Hematopoietic regulation by over-expression or inhibition of miRNAs implicated in HOX regulation (e.g. mir-196, mir-10) is also currently being evaluated by WEB nucleofection. Our ability to specifically control multiple combinations of transgenic DNA, siRNA or miRNA molecules, temporally and spatially during hEB differentiation, provides novel opportunities to manipulate the CDX-HOX axis for generating and expanding multi-potent hematopoietic progenitors from hESC. The role of HOX-regulating factors and miRNAs involved in regulating the earliest steps of human hematopoietic commitment can now be directly evaluated.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.