Generation of functional cardiomyocytes from rat embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells using feeder-free expansion and differentiation in suspension culture
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The possibility to generate cardiomyocytes from pluripotent stem cells in vitro has enormous significance for basic research, disease modeling, drug development and heart repair. The concept of heart muscle reconstruction has been studied and optimized in the rat model using rat primary cardiovascular cells or xenogeneic pluripotent stem cell derived-cardiomyocytes for years. However, the lack of rat pluripotent stem cells (rPSCs) and their cardiovascular derivatives prevented the establishment of an authentic clinically relevant syngeneic or allogeneic rat heart regeneration model. In this study, we comparatively explored the potential of recently available rat embryonic stem cells (rESCs) and induced pluripotent stem cells (riPSCs) as a source for cardiomyocytes (CMs). We developed feeder cell-free culture conditions facilitating the expansion of undifferentiated rPSCs and initiated cardiac differentiation by embryoid body (EB)-formation in agarose microwell arrays, which substituted the robust but labor-intensive hanging drop (HD) method. Ascorbic acid was identified as an efficient enhancer of cardiac differentiation in both rPSC types by significantly increasing the number of beating EBs (3.6 ± 1.6-fold for rESCs and 17.6 ± 3.2-fold for riPSCs). These optimizations resulted in a differentiation efficiency of up to 20% cTnTpos rPSC-derived CMs. CMs showed spontaneous contractions, expressed cardiac markers and had typical morphological features. Electrophysiology of riPSC-CMs revealed different cardiac subtypes and physiological responses to cardio-active drugs. In conclusion, we describe rPSCs as a robust source of CMs, which is a prerequisite for detailed preclinical studies of myocardial reconstruction in a physiologically and immunologically relevant small animal model.