The differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) into desired cell types such as the pancreatic cells involve cellular proliferation and apoptosis during cell fate transitions. Although different rates of cell growth and death are typically observed during differentiation, its implications for pancreatic tissue formation in humans remain unclear. Here, we profiled the expression of BCL-2 family of proteins during pancreatic specification from hPSCs and observed an upregulation of BCL- XL, downregulation of BAK and corresponding downregulation of cleaved CASP3 representative of apoptosis. The inhibition or downregulation of BCL-xL reciprocally increased apoptosis and resulted in a decreased gene expression of pancreatic markers despite a compensatory increase in companion anti-apoptotic protein BCL2. RNA-Seq analyses revealed a downregulation of multiple metabolic genes upon inhibition of BCL-xL function. Bioenergetics assays then revealed a broad downregulation of both glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation when BCL-xL function was inhibited.

In conclusion, we have identified anti-apoptotic protein BCL-xL to be necessary for suppressing the expression of pro-apoptotic protein BAK to facilitate proper pancreas formation in human cells. This is the first report that links a member of the BCL-2 family with pancreatic specification. Therefore, modulation of these two BCL-2 family of proteins can potentially increase the survival and robustness of pancreatic progenitors that ultimately defines human pancreatic beta cell mass and function.


L. Loo: None. A. Teo: None. S. Ghosh: None. A. Soetedjo: None. L. Nguyen: None. V.G. Krishnan: None. S. Hoon: None.


Agency for Science, Technology and Research; Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology

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