Microfluidic Screening Reveals Heparan Sulfate Enhances Human Mesenchymal Stem Cell Growth by Modulating Fibroblast Growth Factor-2 Transport

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Cost-effective expansion of human mesenchymal stem/stromal cells (hMSCs) remains a key challenge for their widespread clinical deployment. Fibroblast growth factor-2 (FGF-2) is a key hMSC mitogen often supplemented to increase hMSC growth rates. However, hMSCs also produce endogenous FGF-2, which critically interacts with cell surface heparan sulfate (HS). We assessed the interplay of FGF-2 with a heparan sulfate variant (HS8) engineered to bind FGF-2 and potentiate its activity. Bone marrow-derived hMSCs were screened in perfused microbioreactor arrays (MBAs), showing that HS8 (50 μg/ml) increased hMSC proliferation and cell number after 3 days, with an effect equivalent to FGF-2 (50 ng/ml). In combination, the effects of HS8 and FGF-2 were additive. Differential cell responses, from upstream to downstream culture chambers under constant flow of media in the MBA, provided insights into modulation of FGF-2 transport by HS8. HS8 treatment induced proliferation mainly in the downstream chambers, suggesting a requirement for endogenous FGF-2 accumulation, whereas responses to FGF-2 occurred primarily in the upstream chambers. Adding HS8 along with FGF-2, however, maximized the range of FGF-2 effectiveness. Measurements of FGF-2 in static cultures then revealed that this was because HS8 caused increased endogenous FGF-2 production and liberated FGF-2 from the cell surface into the supernatant. HS8 also sustained levels of supplemented FGF-2 available over 3 days. These results suggest HS8 enhances hMSC proliferation and expansion by leveraging endogenous FGF-2 production and maximizing the effect of supplemented FGF-2. This is an exciting strategy for cost-effective expansion of hMSCs. Stem Cells Translational Medicine 2017;6:1178–1190

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