Hypoxia has been suggested to be a characteristic of the bone marrow (BM) microenvironment where hematopoietic stem cells (HSC) reside. The major molecular response to hypoxia is the activation of hypoxia inducible factors (HIF). These transcription factors activate gene expression by binding to hypoxia response elements (HRE) in the promoter region of target genes, such as vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). It has been demonstrated that VEGF is indispensable for HSC survival in the adult and that VEGF mediated HSC survival is cell intrinsic. We are therefore investigating the role of hypoxia-regulated VEGF expression in HSC survival. For our studies we use the transgenic mouse model VEGFδ/δ. In this model, the HRE in the VEGF promoter is mutated which prevents HIF binding. Thus, hypoxia-induced VEGF transcriptional activation is abrogated while basal VEGF expression remains unaffected. Steady state hematopoiesis was not affected by the mutation since distribution between the B-cell, T-cell and myeloid lineages in both peripheral blood and BM of mice homozygous for the mutation was comparable to wild type animals. Furthermore, we could not detect any differences in the frequency of lineage-, Sca1+, c-kit+, CD34- cells in the BM between VEGFδ/δ and wild type mice. However, when assessing HSC functional properties in transplantation assays, BM from mice homozygous for the mutation was demonstrated to have dramatically reduced HSC function. Only around 60 % of lethally irradiated recipients that were transplanted with VEGFδ/δ BM could be rescued while recipients receiving wild type BM survived as expected. In addition, during early hematopoietic reconstitution, a skewing towards myeloid differentiation at the expense of B-cell differentiation could be observed in peripheral blood of recipients reconstituted with VEGFδ/δ BM. Moreover, in a competitive repopulation assay, VEGFδ/δ BM was shown to have a severe competitive disadvantage compared to wild type BM. Our findings indicate an important role for hypoxia related VEGF expression in reconstituting HSCs and suggest that low oxygen levels might be an important characteristic of the HSC niche.

Disclosures: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

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