The stem cell antigen c-kit characterizes a heterogeneous pool of human cardiac progenitor cells (hCPCs) that exhibit a remarkable degree of regenerative potential and are currently employed in clinical trials. While this hCPC pool contains distinct subpopulations of c-kit+ cells that preferentially differentiate into muscular or vascular cardiac cells, we hypothesize that hCPCs may be coerced to specify only along the cardiomyogenic lineage by manipulating the Wnt/β-catenin pathway.
We report that pharmacological inhibition of the non-canonical Wnt pathway facilitated the commitment of more than >95% c-kit+ hCPCs to the cardiomyocyte lineage after 4 days in-vitro: this constitutes a substantially more homogeneous population than previously reported with dexamethasone treatment.
The hCPC-derived myocytes stained positive for Nkx2.5, a transcription factor that orchestrates cardiomyogenic differentiation, and for the contractile protein sarcomeric α-actin. To test if we could push the cells towards a more mature phenotype, we mimicked the cyclic modulation of the Wnt pathway observed during development. While activation of Wnt signaling resulted in widespread cell death and reduction in cell size, subsequent Wnt inhibition prompted the spared cells to proliferate. With this protocol, hCPC-derived myocytes increased in size and displayed more mature cytoskeletal architectures. In contrast with dexamethasone treated cells, where the localization of α-sarcomeric actinin is mostly diffuse in the cytoplasm, here we observed both Z-bodies and Z-disks like structures. The latter exhibited a periodicity of ~1.6 um and were clustered in larger, more aligned actin bundles. This finding suggests that the tension developed along these cytoskeletal components may play a role in the recruitment of sarcomeric proteins.
In conclusion, Wnt signaling inhibition in hCPCs may be sufficient to obtain a homogeneous population of cells with features of myocytes, characterized by improved cytoskeletal organization than dexamethasone treated cells and similar to that observed in myocytes derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells.