Expansion of human hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) ex vivo has been difficult due to limited understanding of their growth requirements and the molecular complexity of their natural microenvironments. To mimic the niches in which human HSCs normally develop and expand during ontogeny, we have derived two unique types of stromal niche cells from the first trimester human placenta and the fetal liver. These lines either support maintenance of multipotential progenitors in culture, or promote differentiation into macrophages. Impressively, the supportive lines facilitate over 50,000-fold expansion of the most immature human HSCs/progenitors (CD34+CD38-Thy1+) during 8-week culture supplemented with minimal cytokines FLT3L, SCF and TPO, whereas the cells cultured on non-supportive stroma or without stroma under the same conditions differentiated within 2 weeks. As the supportive stroma lines also facilitate differentiation of human hematopoietic progenitors into myeloid, erythroid and B-lymphoid lineages, we were able to show that the expanded progenitors preserved full multipotentiality during long-term culture ex vivo. Furthermore, our findings indicate that the supportive stroma lines also direct differentiation of human embryonic stem cells (hESC) into hematopoietic progenitor cells (CD45+CD34+) that generate multiple types of myeloerythroid colonies. These data imply that the unique supportive niche cells can both support hematopoietic specification and sustain a multilineage hematopoietic hierarchy in culture over several weeks. Strikingly, the supportive effect from the unique stromal cells was dominant over the differentiation effect from the non-supportive lines. Even supernatant from the supportive lines was able to partially protect the progenitors that were cultured on the non-supportive lines, whereas mixing of the two types of stroma resulted in sustained preservation of the multipotential progenitors. These results indicate that the supportive stroma cells possess both secreted and surface bound molecules that protect multipotentiality of HSCs. Global gene expression analysis revealed that the supportive stroma lines from both the placenta and the fetal liver were almost identical (r=0.99) and very different from the non-supportive lines that promote differentiation (r=0.34), implying that they represent two distinct niche cell types. Interestingly, the non-supportive lines express known mesenchymal markers such as (CD73, CD44 and CD166), whereas the identity of the supportive cells is less obvious. In summary, we have identified unique human stromal niche cells that may be critical components of the HSC niches in the placenta and the fetal liver. Molecular characterization of these stroma lines may enable us to define key mechanisms that govern the multipotentiality of HSCs.

Disclosures: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

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