Mol Biol Rep (2014) 41:1713–1721 DOI 10.1007/s11033-014-3020-1

Comparison of different protocols for neural differentiation of human induced pluripotent stem cells Ali Salimi • Samad Nadri • Marzieh Ghollasi Khosro Khajeh • Masoud Soleimani

Received: 18 July 2013 / Accepted: 2 January 2014 / Published online: 29 January 2014 Ó Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Abstract Although embryonic stem cells (ESCs) have enormous potentials due to their pluripotency, their therapeutic use is limited by ethical, biological and safety issues. Compared to ESCs, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) can be obtained from mouse or human fibroblasts by reprogramming. Numerous studies have established many protocols for differentiation of human iPSCs (hiPSCs) into neural lineages. However, the low differentiation efficiency of such protocols motivates researchers to design new protocols for high yield differentiation. Herein, we compared neural differentiation potential of three induction media for conversion of hiPSCs into neural lineages. In this study, hiPSCsderived embryoid bodies were plated on laminin coated

Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s11033-014-3020-1) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users. A. Salimi Department of Nanobiotechnology, Faculty of Biological Science, Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran, Iran S. Nadri Stem Cell Biology Department, Nanotechnology and Tissue Engineering Department, Stem Cell Technology Research Center, Tehran, Iran M. Ghollasi Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, Faculty of Biological Science, Kharazmi University, Tehan, Iran K. Khajeh Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Biological Science, Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran, Iran M. Soleimani (&) Department of Hematology, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran, Iran e-mail: [email protected]

dishes and were treated with three induction media including (1) bFGF, EGF (2) RA and (3) forskolin, IBMX. Immunofluorescence staining and quantitative real-time PCR (qPCR) analysis were used to detect the expression of neural genes and proteins. qPCR analysis showed that the expression of neural genes in differentiated hiPSCs in forskolin, IBMX supplemented media was significantly higher than undifferentiated cells and those in induction media containing bFGF, EGF or RA. In conclusion, our results indicated a successful establishment protocol with high efficiency for differentiation of hiPSCs into neural lineages. Keywords Induced pluripotent stem cells  Protocol  Neural differentiation  Induction media

Introduction Stem cell therapy, a cellular approach for the repair and regeneration of various tissues and organs, is offering an attractive field of research with potential medical therapies, particularly for specific neural disorders or injuries. To achieve this goal, regenerative medicine requires the use of authentic sources of stem cells and cytokine growth factors [1]. Uniquely, stem cell populations are subject to differentiate into tissue-specific lineages. Naturally derived stem cells, such as embryonic, umbilical cord blood and adult stem cells, participate in organ development in utero and tissue renewal during adulthood [2]. Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are functionally similar to embryonic stem cells (ESCs), can be obtained from mouse or human fibroblasts by activating a combination of a limited number of reprogramming genes such as Oct4, Sox2, Klf4, and c-Myc [3] or Oct4, Sox2, Nanog, and Lin28 [4–7]. Various sources of cells such as



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normal fibroblasts [8], keratinocytes [9], hematopoietic lineages [10], or adipose tissue [11] have been successfully reprogrammed. There are no ethical obstacles with using iPSCs since they are produced from somatic cells. Moreover, these cells are capable of self-renewal and differentiation into a wide range of cell types, providing an unlimited, invaluable and promising source of pluripotent stem cells for cell transplantation therapy and overcoming many human diseases [12]. The wide district of therapeutic potentials of the iPSCs has been demonstrated in numerous principle diseases/ailments including sickle cell anemia [13], hemophilia A [14], musculoskeletal [15] and heart diseases [16–18]. In addition, evolving iPS cell models would be advantageous to the treatment of many neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental disorders [19] such as Parkinson’s [20–22], Huntington’s [23], multiple sclerosis [24] and Sandhoff diseases [25] as well as Fragile X [26], Down’s [6] and Prader-Willi syndromes [27]. In other investigations, iPSCs have been used to treat injuries of the central nervous system, including spinal cord [28, 29]. In producing particular cell types for specific uses, it is crucial to direct the differentiation of iPSCs to the favorable lineages. One of the key components in appropriate guided differentiation are the growth factors that promote differentiation, expansion or survival of specific cell types [30]. A number of investigations have used various treatments containing retinoic acid (RA), sonic hedgehog (SHH), glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), ciliary neurotrophic factor, insulin-like growth factor (IGF), epidermal growth factor (EGF), basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) and nerve growth factor for neural differentiation of iPSCs in vitro and in vivo [25, 31–37]. Although numerous studies have been performed for induction of neural differentiation in iPSCs, the low differentiation efficiency of such protocols motivates researchers to design other methods for higher neural differentiation yield. In this project, we compared the neural differentiation potential of three induction media for differentiation of hiPSCs into neural cells and consequently attained a new protocol with high efficiency.

with hiPSC medium containing DMEM/F12 culture medium supplemented with 10 % FBS-ESC qualified, 0.1 mmol/l nonessential amino acids, 1 mmol/l L-glutamine, 20 ng/ml bFGF (all from Invitrogen), 0.1 mmol/l b-mercaptoethanol and penicillin (50 U/ml)/streptomycin (50 lg/ml) (all from Sigma-Aldrich, St. Louis, MO), and about 50 % of the medium was replaced every day. Every five to six days hiPS colonies were detached with 0.1 % collagenase IV (Invitrogen), and replated onto inactivated SNL76/7 cells for outspread.

Materials and methods

The transcription level of neural key genes including btubulin III, Nestin, neuron specific enolase (NSE), microtubule-associated protein-2 (MAP-2), Olig2, glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) was tested in differentiated hiPS cells by RT-PCR assay. The total cellular RNA was extracted using Qiazol (Qiagen) according to the manufacturer’s protocol and random hexamer primed cDNA synthesis was carried out with RevertAid first strand cDNA synthesis kit (Fermentas, Burlington, Canada). PCR amplification was

iPS cell culture The hiPSC line was obtained from the cell bank of Stem Cell Technology Research Center (Tehran, Iran). These cells were cultured on mitotically (Invitrogen Co. USA) inactivated feeder layers of SNL76/7 cells in 6 cm Petri dishes (SPL Life Sciences CO. Korea), covered with 20 lg/ml laminin in PBS (both Invitrogen). The cells were passaged every three days


Embryoid body formation For embryoid body (EB) formation, the iPS colonies were first removed from their feeder layers with 0.1 % collagenase IV, then transferred into non-treated six well plates (Jet Biofil, Japan). These colonies grew as EB-like floating cell aggregates in EB medium consisting of hiPS medium without bFGF for 3 days. In vitro differentiation of hiPS cells into neuronal lineages The EBs were plated on laminin (20 lg/ml) coated 6 cm Petri dishes in three different neural induction media consisting of (1) Knockout DMEM/F12, 20 ng/ml bFGF, 20 ng/ml EGF (Pepro Tech INC. CO, USA) and 1 % Lglutamine, (2) Knockout DMEM/F12, 2.5 lM RA (Sigma) and different concentrations of FBS (10, 5 and 2 % during 1–4, 5–10 and 11–14 days of differentiation, respectively) and (3) Knockout DMEM/F12, 2.5 mM forskolin (MP Biomedicals INC. CO, USA), 0.5 mM isobutyl methyl xanthin (IBMX; Sigma) and different concentrations of FBS (10, 5 and 2 % during 1–4, 5–10 and 11–14 days of differentiation, respectively). The EB colonies were incubated in 5 % CO2 at 37 °C for two weeks. The differentiated cells were examined for gene and protein expression. All the procedures were the same for specific and spontaneous differentiation, except the medium was for neuraldifferentiating and hiPSC, respectively. Reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and real-time RT-PCR analysis

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10 min. The fixed cells were blocked for 30 min at 37 °C with 5 % goat serum/PBS-tween-20 and were reacted overnight at 4 °C in a humidity chamber with the respective primary antibodies: b-tubulin III (1:50 Chemicon), MAP-2 (1:300 Santa Cruz biotechnology, INC) and NSE (1:100 Santa Cruz biotechnology). In the end of the incubation time, the cells were rinsed three times with PBStween-20 (0.1 %) and were incubated with the phycoerythrin PE-conjugated anti mouse IgG as the secondary antibody (1:100 Sigma) at room temperature for 1 h. After rinsing with PBS, the nuclei were counterstained with DAPI (Sigma), and the cells were then analyzed with a fluorescent microscope (Nikon, Japan).


Statistical analysis


The acquired data were analyzed by REST 2009. P-values less than 0.05 were considered as statistically significant. Asterisk (*) shows that the result is significant p B 0.05. Each experiment was repeated independently at least three times.

Table 1 Primers used in RT-PCR and real-time RT-PCR analysis Gene

Primers F (top), R (bottom)

Product size (bp)

b-tubulin III


















carried out by standard procedure with Taq DNA Polymerase (Fermentas) with initial denaturation at 94 °C for 2 min, followed by 35 cycles of denaturation at 94 °C for 15 s, annealing at 58 °C for 45 s, and extension at 72 °C for 45 s. The PCR products were separated on a 2 % agarose gel and visualized by staining the gel on ethidium bromide. The cDNA was used for 40 cycle PCR in Rotor Gene 6000 (Corbett Research, Australia) with a total volume of 13 ll containing 6.25 ll of SYBR PCR Premix EX TaqTM (Perfect Real Time; Takara), 600 nM of final concentration for each primer, 1 ll template and sufficient distilled water to reach the volume of 13 ll. Real-time PCR was performed in three-step with the following thermal setting: 3 min at 95 °C for initial enzyme activation followed by 40 amplification cycles (each 5 s at 95 °C, 20 s at 58 °C and 30 s at 72 °C with fluorescence detection) and a final step of melting curve analysis. All the samples were analyzed in duplicate, and the average values were used for quantification. The relative quantitative model was performed to calculate the expression of the target gene in comparison to HPRT1 as the endogenous control. For PCR amplification and realtime RT-PCR, genes and the related specific primers are represented in Table 1.

Results iPS cell culture and embryoid body formation The hiPS colonies [38, 39] were cultured on laminin coated 6 cm dishes seeded with mitomycin C-treated SNL feeder, and incubate in a 37 °C, 5 % CO2 incubator until they reached 80–90 % confluency (Fig. 1a). For EB formation, the hiPSCs were detached from their feeder layers with collagenase IV and transferred into non-treated six well plates in a defined medium. EBs were detected after 3 days of suspension culture (Fig. 1b). In vitro differentiation of hiPS cells into neural lineages Cellular morphology After 2 weeks of exposure to three distinct neural induction media, the differentiated cells were first morphologically assessed using phase contrast microscope. In vitro differentiation of hiPS cells into neuron-like cells was observed in all three defined media (Fig. 2) however, morphology of the cells treated with the induction medium 3, containing IBMX and forskolin, was the best.


RT-PCR and real-time RT-PCR analysis

The cells were rinsed twice with PBS and then fixed with 4 % paraformaldehyde (Sigma) for 20 min. The cells were then permeabilized with 0.4 % Triton X100 in PBS for

The expression of neural (oligodendrocyte-, astrocyte- and neuronal-specific) genes was examined in both undifferentiated and differentiated hiPS cells in order to confirm



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Fig. 1 Human iPSCs (black arrowheads) (a) seeded on SNL76/7 feeder layer (white arrowheads) and human iPS embryoid bodies (EBs) (b). Scale bars represent 100 lm

Fig. 2 Phase contrast morphology of differentiated neuronal-like iPSCs in different induction media 1, 2 and 3. The scale bar is 100 lm

neural differentiation after applying three defined induction media. RT-PCR analysis indicated the expression of the mentioned genes (Supplementary Fig. 1). In differentiated hiPSCs, mRNA levels encoding for b-tubulin III, Nestin, NSE, MAP-2, Olig2, GFAP and BDNF were higher compared with undifferentiated hiPSCs. As shown in Fig. 3, Nestin (2.4-fold; p B 0.001), MAP-2 (4.55-fold; p B 0.001), Olig2 (2.3-fold; p B 0.001), GFAP (1.3-fold; p B 0.001) and BDNF (4.35-fold; p B 0.001) genes were expressed significantly higher in induction medium 2 compared with induction medium 1. However, no significant differences were detected between the expression of b-tubulin III and NSE genes in both induction media 1 and 2. Our results indicated that in induction medium 3, btubulin III (1.3-fold; p B 0.001), Nestin (3.96- and 1.64folds; p B 0.001), NSE (1.3 and 2.0-folds; p B 0.001), MAP-2 (7.4- and 1.63-folds; p B 0.001), Olig2 (5.25- and 2.3-folds; p B 0.001) and BDNF (9.1- and 2.1-folds; p B 0.001) were significantly expressed higher and GFAP expression was lower than other groups .


Immunofluorescence staining for b-tubulin III, MAP-2 and NSE The protein level of neural key genes was increased in the period of differentiation of hiPSCs into neural lineages. Immunofluorescence staining was performed to investigate the cellular localization and expression of neuronal markers. Expression of the transcription factors including btubulin III, MAP-2 and NSE proteins were assayed by immunofluorescence staining which confirmed their presence in differentiated hiPSCs in all induction media (Fig. 4).

Discussion Although ESCs have enormous potentials due to their pluripotency, their therapeutic use is limited by ethical, biological and safety issues. Compared to ESCs, adult stem cells (ASCs) have lower self-renewal capability and

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Fig. 3 Investigation of oligodendrocyte, astrocyte and neuronal gene expression in both undifferentiated and differentiated hiPSCs. Realtime RT-PCR analysis indicates up and down expression of neural markers after applying three defined induction media. REST software was used for gene expression analysis using real-time PCR data from the rotor-gene Q. HPRT1 was used as a control for RNA sample quality. Results are presented as mean ± SD. Significant levels are *p B 0.05

multipotency [1, 40]. Considering the advances in iPSCs technology and their differentiation potentials into any type of cells from the three germ layers, these cells could overcome the limitations of hESCs and ASCs [41]. Promising evidence has been reported for the use of iPSCs in a number of animal models of human diseases, including

Fig. 4 Immunofluorescence staining of differentiated iPSCs in three neural induction media for 2 weeks. The cells were analyzed for the expression of neural markers including b-tubulin III (a, c, e), MAP-2


hematological diseases (Fanconi and sickle cell anemia, hemophilia A), cardiac diseases as well as type I diabetes, familial dysautonomia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [42, 43], Alzheimer’s [44–46], Parkinson’s [20–22], Huntington’s disease [23] and many other syndromes (Down’s and Prader-Willi syndromes) [6, 27]. In the present study, differentiation of hiPSCs into neural lineages was assessed in three induction media, and a new protocol with optimum efficiency was introduced. Although various studies have established different protocols for neural differentiation, there are numerous limitations in iPSC differentiation to specific neural lineages including low efficiency, which is a drawback for their application in regenerative medicine and cell therapy [24, 25, 47]. To overcome the technical challenges of generating neuronal cells from iPSC lines, it is vital to organize a more rapid and efficient method of differentiation. In this project, the yield of neural cells was higher than previous reports where three definite media including (1) bFGF and EGF, (2) RA and (3) forskolin and IBMX were used. This protocol revealed a high percentage of neuronal differentiation. Immunocytochemical analysis showed that more than 90 % of total iPSCs expressed specific neuronal proteins such as btubulin III, MAP-2 and NSE. In this study, forskolin and IBMX were indicated to prompt highly efficient differentiation of hiPSCs into specific classes of neurons. iPSCs were differentiated within 2 weeks using DMEM containing FBS, forskolin and IBMX. Previous investigators have differentiated iPSCs

(g, i, k) and NSE (m, o, q). DAPI staining (b, d, f, h, j, l, n, p, r). Scale bars represent 100 lm



using a multi-step protocol in a cocktail of neuronal medium consisting of DMEM supplemented with SHH, GDNF and BDNF [35]. According to the results, herein it seems that iPSCs were differentiated into neurons by easier and more feasible protocol compared with other studies. This study demonstrated an induction role of forskolin, IBMX in iPSCs differentiation into neuronal lineages in vitro. Induction of iPSCs using strong factors at an early stage might be the key to a high yield of specific neural lineages. The role of forskolin and IBMX in neurogenesis processing and induction of cells into neuron-like morphology has been reported previously [48, 49]. In other reports it has been shown that low concentration of forskolin (1–2 lM) was necessary for maintaining human embryonic germ (hEG) cells proliferative in the undifferentiated state, but high concentration of forskolin (1 mM) may facilitate its differentiation towards neurons [50, 51]. MacDonald et al. [52] described that the addition of forskolin to the culture medium of mouse multipotent spinal cord precursor cells increased the number of MAP2–expressing neurons. In addition, the neurons obtained in neurotrophic factors treated cultures containing forskolin had longer neurites and more axon terminals than those found in the same cultures without forskolin [52]. IBMX is a competitive nonselective phosphodiesterase inhibitor [53] that similar to forskolin enhances the intracellular levels of cAMP by activating the adenylyl cyclase enzyme. Subsequently, activation of the PKA signaling pathway induces the differentiation of neural precursor cells [54–58]. Many researchers have used these induction agents for neural differentiation of human adipose tissue-derived stem cells and human mesenchymal stem cells into neuronal-like cells [1, 54, 55]. Our study successfully tried IBMX, forskolin to induce differentiating hiPSC cultures to mature neurons. Song et al. [24] showed the differentiation of iPSCs into neuronal cells within 4 weeks using an induction medium including EGF and human bFGF. However, due to a low expression rate of specific neuronal markers such as btubulin III and MAP-2, this protocol was not applicable. Nevertheless, we achieved more than 90 % expression of btubulin III and MAP-2 after treatment of iPSCs with forskolin, IBMX and different concentrations of FBS. b-tubulin III and MAP-2 play important functional roles in neuronal morphogenesis, polymerization and stabilization of microtubules, organelle transport within neurons and synaptic plasticity [59–61]. By treating the hiPSCs with neuronal factors at an early stage of differentiation, b-tubulin III, Nestin, NSE, MAP-2, Olig2, and BDNF genes (neuronal specific markers) were overexpressed while the expression of GFAP was suppressed. Our results suggested that iPSCs differentiated into neuronal lineages with higher efficiency. In addition, our protocol is easier and faster compared to other available iPSCs differentiation protocols.


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Previous studies have shown impaired, low and variable differentiation of iPSCs expressing neuronal specific markers after treatment with N2 medium containing vitamin A, bFGF, EGF and another induction medium containing N2 supplement, FGF2, Noggin and SB43152 [25, 47]. Our study, established an effective neural differentiation protocol for iPSCs. However, further research is required to explain the capability of this method or to modify it for differentiating iPSCs for treatment of neuronal degenerations. Several studies have revealed that medium supplements are important in iPSC differentiation capacity [47, 62]. In this study, iPSCs were differentiated in three induction media, and the differentiation rate was examined in the three groups. In the next part of this study, differentiation rate of hiPSCs into neural lineages was assessed using three induction media. It has been proved that using conditioned media plays an important role in the differentiation of stem cells into neural lineages [62]. Neural differentiation efficiency of some but not all the cells could be enhanced by applying extra neural inducers, suggesting that low neural differentiation efficiencies cannot be explained by a single mechanism [47]. With this in mind, we prepared three induction media and investigated their effects on differentiating hiPSCs to obtain an effective neural induction medium. While various protocols have been proposed, no agreement on the most effective protocol has been attained so far. In the present study, we applied three different induction media included (1) bFGF, EGF (2) RA and (3) forskolin and IBMX. iPSCs differentiation was then evaluated by neuronal-like morphology of the cells and expression of neural specific markers by immunofluorescence experiments as well as realtime RT-PCR analysis after two weeks of treatment. When the cells were treated with induction medium 3 containing IBMX and forskolin, their morphology had a higher similarity with neuronal cells. This might imply that the growth factors IBMX and forskolin and reagents in induction medium 3 enriched the highest percentage of differentiated cells. Immunofluorescence staining demonstrated that in induction medium 3 neural specific proteins including btubulin III, MAP-2 and NSE were expressed higher than others. These results are in agreement with qPCR data acquired from the differentiated iPSCs. After exposure to induction media, qPCR analysis indicated that in induction medium 3 neural specific genes including b-tubulin III (neuronal marker), Nestin (neural stem cell marker), NSE (early neuroectoderm marker), MAP-2 (neuronal marker), Olig2 (oligodendrocyte marker) and BDNF (neurogenesis marker) were expressed at higher levels while the level of GFAP (astrocytic marker) was decreased compared to the differentiated cells in other induction media [24]. Taken together, these results indicated that iPSCs in induction medium 3 were more likely to differentiate into neural

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cells, while iPSCs in other induction media preferentially differentiated into glial and astrocyte cells. Researchers have reported that forskolin increases the expression of GFAP with a concomitant reduction in the expression of nestin and NF-L in the cells, leading to morphological changes of these cells to astrocyte-like phenotype [56]. It seems that forskolin in combination with IBMX has activated common signaling pathways in neural differentiation of the cells and has had a synergistic influence on these pathways. In this project, Immunofluorescence staining revealed that the expression of neural specific markers including btubulin III, MAP-2 and NSE was higher in induction medium 2 than induction medium 1. qPCR analysis indicated that compared to RA, after treatment with bFGF and EGF, neural specific genes including Nestin, MAP-2, Olig2, GFAP and BDNF were expressed at high levels, while in both induction media 1 and 2 no significant differences were observed between b-tubulin III and NSE gene expression. These results demonstrated that iPSCs in induction medium 2 preferentially differentiated into glial and astrocyte cells, while iPSCs in induction medium 1 were more likely to differentiate into neural cells. In the present study, we differentiated iPSCs in induction medium 1 including bFGF and EGF. Some studies have shown that these growth factors play important modulatory roles in neuronal differentiation, axon growth as well as an inducing production of neural cells [63–65]. In this work, not only was the neural morphology inappropriate among the cells in both induction media 1 and 2, but also the gene and protein expression level was lower in induction medium 1 compared with 2 (including RA). RA has a critical role in neural differentiation, motor axon outgrowth, neural patterning and nerve regeneration. Previous investigations have reported the effect of RA on brain development and function [66]. Taken together, our results showed that forskolin and IBMX (as a new factor) induce upregulation of several genes important for differentiation of hiPSCs into neuronal cells. For the first time, we successfully demonstrated the high yield differentiation of iPSCs into neuronal lineages in vitro. Acknowledgments We are grateful to the manager of Stem Cell Technology Research Center.

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Comparison of different protocols for neural differentiation of human induced pluripotent stem cells.

Although embryonic stem cells (ESCs) have enormous potentials due to their pluripotency, their therapeutic use is limited by ethical, biological and s...
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