Embryonic stem cell microenvironment enhances proliferation of human retinal pigment epithelium cells by activating the PI3K signaling pathway

Jiahui Liu, Liu Yang, Xiaoran Wang, Shoubi Wang, Zheqian Huang, Chaoyang Li, Ying Liu, Yaqi Cheng, Chengxiu Liu, Zhichong Wang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) replacement has been proposed as an efficacious treatment for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is the primary cause of vision loss in the elderly worldwide. The embryonic stem cell (ESC) microenvironment has been demonstrated to enable mature cells to gain a powerful proliferative ability and even enhance the stem/progenitor phenotype via activation of the phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K) signaling pathway. As the PI3K signaling pathway plays a pivotal role in proliferation and homeostasis of RPE, we hypothesize that the stemness and proliferative capability of RPE can be enhanced by the ESC microenvironment via activation of the PI3K signaling pathway. Methods: To investigate whether the ESC microenvironment improves the stem cell phenotype and proliferation properties of human RPE (hRPE) cells by regulating the PI3K signaling pathway, primary hRPE cells were cocultured with either ESCs or human corneal epithelial cells (CECs) for 72 h, after which their proliferation, apoptosis, cell cycle progression, and colony formation were assayed to evaluate changes in their biological characteristics. Gene expression was detected by real-time PCR and protein levels were determined by western blotting or immunofluorescence. LY294002, an antagonist of the PI3K signaling pathway, was used to further confirm the mechanism involved. Results: In comparison to hRPE cells cultured alone, hRPE cells cocultured with ESCs had an increased proliferative capacity, reduced apoptotic rate, and higher colony-forming efficiency. The expression of the stem cell-associated marker KLF4 and the differentiation marker CRALBP increased and decreased, respectively, in hRPE cells isolated from the ESC coculture. Furthermore, PI3K pathway-related genes were significantly upregulated in hRPE cells after exposure to ESCs. LY294002 reversed the pro-proliferative effect of ESCs on hRPE cells. In contrast, CECs did not share the ability of ESCs to influence the biological behavior and gene expression of hRPE cells. Conclusions: Our findings indicate that the ESC microenvironment enhances stemness and proliferation of hRPE cells, partially via activation of the PI3K signaling pathway. This study may have a significant impact and clinical implication on cell therapy in regenerative medicine, specifically for age-related macular degeneration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number411
JournalStem Cell Research and Therapy
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 23 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Embryonic stem cell microenvironment
  • PI3K pathway
  • Proliferation
  • Regenerative medicine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology (miscellaneous)
  • Cell Biology


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