Embryonic stem (ES) cells are a type of pluripotent stem cell line isolated from the inner cell mass of blastocysts and characterized by an almost unlimited self-renewal capacity and differentiation potential in vitro into multiple cell lineages. Therefore the use of ES cells has recently received much attention as a novel cell source for various hybrid artificial organs. To use ES cells, it is necessary to be able to produce functional matured cells from ES cells in large quantities. In this study, we applied polyurethane foam (PUF)/spheroid culture, which enables spontaneous spheroid formation and mass cultivation of cultured cells, to mouse ES cells for hepatic differentiation. Mouse ES cells spontaneously formed spherical multicellular aggregates (spheroids) in the pores of the PUF within 1 d. To induce hepatic differentiation, specific growth factors were added to the culture medium. Mouse ES cells proliferated by day 20, and high cell density (about 1.0×108 cells/cm3-PUF) was achieved. Differentiating ES cells expressed endodermal-specific genes, such as α-fetoprotein, albumin and tryptophan 2,3-dioxygenase. The activity of ammonia removal of mouse ES cells per unit volume of the module was detected by day 21 and increased with culture time. Maximum expression levels were comparable to those of primary mouse hepatocytes. Mouse ES cells could express liver-specific functions at high level because of the high cell density culture and hepatic differentiation. These results suggest that the PUF/spheroid culture method could be useful to develop mass differentiation cultures.
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