Nuclear Akt2 Opposes Limbal Keratinocyte Stem Cell Self-Renewal by Repressing a FOXO-mTORC1 Signaling Pathway



Signals downstream of Akt can either favor or oppose stem cell (SC) maintenance, but how this dual role can be achieved is still undefined. Using human limbal keratinocyte stem cells (LKSCs), a SC type used in transplantation therapies for corneal regeneration, we show that Akt signaling is prominent in SC populations both in vivo and in vitro, and that Akt1 promotes while Akt2 opposes SC self-renewal. Noteworthy, loss of Akt2 signaling enhances LKSC maintenance ex vivo, whereas Akt1 depletion anticipates SC exhaustion. Mechanistically, the antagonistic functions of Akt1 and Akt2 in SC control are mainly dictated by their differential subcellular distribution, being nuclear Akt2 selectively implicated in FOXO inhibition. Akt2 downregulation favors LKSC maintenance as a result of a gain of FOXO functions, which attenuates the mechanistic target of rapamycin complex one signaling via tuberous sclerosis one gene induction, and promotes growth factor signaling through Akt1. Consistently, Akt2 deficiency also enhances limbal SCs in vivo. Thus, our findings reveal distinct roles for nuclear versus cytosolic Akt signaling in normal epithelial SC control and suggest that the selective Akt2 inhibition may provide novel pharmacological strategies for human LKSC expansion in therapeutic settings and mechanistic research. Stem Cells 2014;32:754–769