Dry eye disease is the most prevalent pathological condition in aging eyes. One potential therapeutic strategy is the transplantation of lacrimal glands, generated in vitro from pluripotent stem cells such as human embryonic stem cells, into patients. One of the preceding requirements is a method to differentiate human embryonic stem cells into lacrimal gland epithelium cells. As the first step for this approach, this study aims to identify a set of transcription factors whose overexpression can promote the differentiation of human embryonic stem cells into lacrimal gland epithelium-like cells. We performed microarray analyses of lacrimal glands and lacrimal glands-related organs obtained from mouse embryos and adults, and identified transcription factors enriched in lacrimal gland epithelium cells. We then transfected synthetic messenger RNAs encoding human orthologues of these transcription factors into human embryonic stem cells and examined whether the human embryonic stem cells differentiate into lacrimal gland epithelium-like cells by assessing cell morphology and marker gene expression. The microarray analysis of lacrimal glands tissues identified 16 transcription factors that were enriched in lacrimal gland epithelium cells. We focused on three of the transcription factors, because they are expressed in other glands such as salivary glands and are also known to be involved in the development of lacrimal glands. We tested the overexpression of various combinations of the three transcription factors and PAX6, which is an indispensable gene for lacrimal glands development, in human embryonic stem cells. Combining PAX6, SIX1, and FOXC1 caused significant changes in morphology, i.e., elongated cell shape and increased expression (both RNAs and proteins) of epithelial markers such as cytokeratin15, branching morphogenesis markers such as BARX2, and lacrimal glands markers such as aquaporin5 and lactoferrin. We identified a set of transcription factors enriched in lacrimal gland epithelium cells and demonstrated that the simultaneous overexpression of these transcription factors can differentiate human embryonic stem cells into lacrimal gland epithelium-like cells. This study suggests the possibility of lacrimal glands regeneration from human pluripotent stem cells.
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