Targeted release of transcription factors for human cell reprogramming by ZEBRA cell-penetrating peptide

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Transcription factors (TFs) are key actors of the control of gene expression and consequently of every major process within cells, ranging from cell fate determination, cell cycle control and response to environment. Their ectopic expression has proven high potential in reprogramming cells for regenerative medicine; ontogenesis studies and cell based modelling. Direct delivery of proteins could represent an alternative to current reprogramming methods using gene transfer but still needs technological improvements. Herein, we set-up an efficient cellular penetration of recombinant TFs fused to the minimal transduction domain (MD) from the ZEBRA protein. We show that ZEBRA MD-fused TFs applied on primary human fibroblasts and cord blood CD34+ hematopoietic stem cells route through the cytoplasm to the nucleus. The delivery of Oct4, Sox2 and Nanog by MD leads to the activation of mRNA transcripts from genes regulated by these TFs. Moreover, the expression of genes involved in the pluripotency network but not directly bound by these TFs, is also induced. Overall, the repeated application of MD-Oct4, MD-Sox2, MD-Nanog TFs and the post-transcriptional regulator RNA-binding protein MD-Lin28a, triggers the rejuvenation of human fibroblasts and CD34+ cells. This study provides powerful tools for cell fate reprogramming without genetic interferences.

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