Sci Rep. 2022 Sep 2;12(1):15008. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-19253-x.
Salivary gland tissue engineering offers an attractive alternative for the treatment of radiation-induced xerostomia. Key to the success of this approach is the maintenance and expansion of secretory acinar cells in vitro. However, recent studies revealed that in vitro culture of primary salivary gland epithelial cells led to undesirable upregulation of the expression of keratin-7 (K7), a marker of ductal phenotype and frequently associated with cellular stress. We have previously shown that hyaluronic acid (HA)-based, RGDSP-decorated hydrogels support the 3D growth and assembly of primary human salivary gland stem/progenitor cells (hS/PCs). Here, we investigate whether the RGDSP culture also promotes K7 expression, and if so, what factors govern the K7 expression. Compared to hS/PCs maintained in blank HA gels, those grown in RGDSP cultures expressed a significantly higher level of K7. In other tissues, various transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β) superfamily members are reported to regulate K7 expression. Similarly, our immunoblot array and ELISA experiments confirmed the increased expression of TGF-β1 and growth/differentiation factor-15 (GDF-15) in RGDSP cultures. However, 2D model studies show that only TGF-β1 is required to induce K7 expression in hS/PCs. Immunocytochemical analysis of the intracellular effectors of TGF-β signaling, SMAD 2/3, further confirmed the elevated TGF-β signaling in RGDSP cultures. To maximize the regenerative potential of h/SPCs, cultures were treated with a pharmacological inhibitor of TGF-β receptor, A83-01. Our results show that A83-01 treatment can repress K7 expression not only in 3D RGDSP cultures but also under 2D conditions with exogenous TGF-β1. Collectively, we provide a link between TGF-β signaling and K7 expression in hS/PC cultures and demonstrate the effectiveness of TGF-β inhibition to repress K7 expression while maintaining the ability of RGDSP-conjugated HA gels to facilitate the rapid development of amylase expressing spheroids. These findings represent an important step towards regenerating salivary function with a tissue-engineered salivary gland.