Human bone marrow contains a rare population of non-hematopoietic mesenchymal stromal cells (BM-MSC) with multilineage differentiation capacity, which are essential constituents of the hematopoietic microenvironment. Self-renewal and differentiation are the two key properties of somatic stem cells, however, stem cell properties of human adult BM-MSC have not been demonstrated conclusively yet. We have previously shown that low/negative expression of PDGFRα on linneg/CD45neg/CD271pos cells identified a highly enriched population of primary BM-MSC in adult human bone marrow (Li et al. Blood, 2013, 122:3699). Based on this work, the current study aimed to investigate the in-vitro and in-vivo stem cell properties of this putative stromal stem cell population.

The in-vitro clonogenic potential of freshly sorted human linneg/CD45neg/CD271pos/PDGFRlow/neg cells was evaluated by utilizing the CFU-F assay as well as the recently-developed mesensphere assay, which enables MSC amplification while preserving an immature phenotype (Isern et al, Cell Reports 2013, 30: 1714-24). Comparable colony frequencies were obtained with both assays (19.3 ± 2 and 17.5 ± 2.3 CFU-F and spheres per 100 plated cells, respectively, n=6, p=0.19). In order to test whether both assays identified the same population of clonogenic cells, colonies and spheres were replated under both conditions for up to three generations. The results showed comparable capacities of CFU-F and mesenspheres to form secondary and tertiary CFU-F and spheres. In-vitro self-renewal as indicated by increasing numbers of CFU-F and spheres (416.6 ± 431.7-fold and 49.5 ± 65.7-fold, respectively, n=3) was observed up to the third generation and decreased thereafter. The total number of generations was five (CFU-F) and six (spheres). In-vitro differentiation assays with both, CFU-F- and sphere-derived cells (tested until passage three) demonstrated tri-lineage differentiation potential (adipocytes, osteoblasts, chondrocytes). In addition, CFU-Fs and spheres had comparable surface marker profiles (CD73, CD90, CD105, and HLA-ABC positive; CD31, CD34 and HLA-DR negative), except for CD90, which was higher expressed on CFU-Fs.

To investigate in-vivo self-renewal and differentiation potential of the putative stromal stem cells, linneg/CD45neg/CD271pos/PDGFRlow/neg -derived CFU-F and spheres were serially transplanted s.c into NSG mice. After 8 weeks, implants were harvested, human cells were FACS-isolated (CD90 and CD105 expression), and re-assayed under CFU-F and sphere conditions. Whereas in-vivo self-renewal of CFU-F could not be shown (111.5 ± 36 –fold decrease in total CFU-F numbers after primary transplantation, n=3), sphere self-renewal was clearly demonstrated by increased numbers of spheres after primary as well as secondary transplantation (1.13 ± 0.05 and 2.06 ± 0.26 –fold, respectively, n=3), which is remarkable given the fact that the number of recovered human cells is underestimated due to the isolation approach. Here, confirming GFP-marking experiments are ongoing. Finally, preliminary data indicate that linneg/CD45neg/CD271pos/PDGFRlow/neg –derived spheres display full in-vivo differentiation capacity in primary and secondary transplantations.

Taken together, our data demonstrate - for the first time - that primary human linneg/CD45neg/CD271pos/PDGFRlow/neg cells meet stringent stem cell criteria, i.e. in-vitro and in-vivo self-renewal and differentiation. These findings answer the long-open question of the potential stem cell properties of adult human MSC and will enable to better understand the properties of native BM-MSC and their biological role in the bone marrow.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.