Targeting gene expression to endothelium in transgenic animals: a comparison of the human ICAM-2, PECAM-1 and endoglin promoters

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It is highly likely that successful pig-to-human xenotransplantation of vascularized organs will require genetic modification of the donor pig, and in particular of donor vascular endothelium. Promoters are generally tested in transgenic mice before generating transgenic pigs. Several promoters have been used to drive endothelial cell-specific expression in mice but none have yet been tested in pigs. We compared the promoters of three human genes that are predominantly expressed in vascular endothelium: intercellular adhesion molecule 2 (ICAM-2), platelet endothelial cell adhesion molecule 1 (PECAM-1) and endoglin. Expression of human complement regulatory proteins (hCRPs), directed by each of the promoters in mice, was largely restricted to vascular endothelium and leukocyte subpopulations. However, expression from the PECAM-1 promoter was weak in liver and non-uniform in the small vessels of heart, kidney, and lung. Conversely, expression from the endoglin promoter was consistently strong in the small vessels of these organs but was absent in larger vessels. The ICAM-2 promoter, which produced strong and uniform endothelial expression in all organs examined, was therefore used to generate hCRP transgenic pigs. Leukocytes from 57 pigs containing at least one intact transgene were tested for transgene expression by flow cytometry. Forty-seven of these transgenic pigs were further analyzed by immunohistochemical staining of liver biopsies, and 18 by staining of heart and kidney sections. Only two of the pigs showed expression, which appeared to be restricted to vascular endothelium in heart and kidney but was markedly weaker than in transgenic mice produced with the same batch of DNA. Thus, in this case, promoter performance in mice and pigs was not equivalent. The weak expression driven by the human ICAM-2 promoter in pigs relative to mice suggests the need for additional regulatory elements to achieve species-specific gene expression in pigs.

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