Until recently, culture and expansion of nondifferentiated human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) depended on coculture with murine embryonic fibroblasts. Because mice are known to harbor a variety of pathogens, such culture conditions implicate the risk of xenozoonoses. Among these pathogens, endogenous retroviruses, including murine leukemia viruses (MuLVs), are of special importance. It is well known that some strains cause pathogenic (e.g., leukemic) effects and that xenotropic, polytropic, and amphotropic MuLVs are able to infect human cells.
In view of potential clinical applications of hESC lines, it is therefore imperative to investigate potential infection of hESCs by mouse feeder cell–derived viruses. As a first step towards a comprehensive infection risk assessment, we have analyzed embryonic fibroblasts derived from different mouse strains for expression and release of xenotropic, polytropic, and amphotropic MuLVs. Moreover, several hESC lines have been investigated for expression of specific receptors for xenotropic/polytropic MuLVs, as well as for MuLV infection and expression.
Evidence for expression of humantropic MuLVs was found in cultures of mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs). Moreover, expression of specific receptors for xenotropic/ polytropic MuLV on human HEK293 and hESC lines and infection after coculture with an MuLV-producing mink cell line could be demonstrated. In contrast, no evidence of MuLV transmission from MEFs to human HEK293 cells or to the hESC lines I-3, I-6, I-8, and H-9 has been obtained.
Our results suggest that recently established hESC lines are free of MuLV infections despite long-term close contact with MEFs.