Isolation and phenotypic characterisation of human notochordal cells. Implications for the development of cell-based therapies for intervertebral disc degeneration

  • Ricardo Rodrigues Pinto

    Student thesis: Phd


    Back pain is a highly prevalent condition whose pathogenesis is associated with intervertebral disc (IVD) degeneration. Degeneration is driven by abnormal cell biology, particularly within the IVD's inner core, the nucleus pulposus (NP). In recent years, there has been an ever-increasing search for cell-based therapies aimed at correcting the cell biology and thus repairing/regenerating the degenerate IVD. The success of these novel therapies, however, requires a thorough understanding of IVD development and of the phenotype of its cells. The embryonic, foetal and juvenile NP is populated by large vacuolated notochordal cells that with skeletal maturity are replaced by smaller NP cells. Since notochordal cells have been shown to display protective and anabolic roles in the IVD their loss in humans has often been suggested to initiate the degenerative process. As such, a detailed understanding of notochordal cells and their regulatory pathways may help identify factors involved in IVD homeostasis and aid the development of novel cell-based therapies targeting IVD degeneration. The study of human notochordal cells has, however, been hindered by ethical, logistical and technical difficulties in obtaining suitable samples and, as such, the human notochordal cell phenotype is, to date, unknown, constituting a major limitation in the field. The work presented here was conducted with the objective of developing a methodology to isolate human developing notochordal cells (NP progenitors) from adjacent sclerotomal cells (annulus fibrosus and vertebral body progenitors), to characterise the notochordal cell phenotype and identify potential factors involved in notochordal cell biology.Initially, human embryonic and foetal spines were characterised to assess their suitability as a source of notochordal cells and to identify a notochord-specific marker that could be used to isolate notochordal cells for microarray studies. The human developing spine contained large vacuolated notochordal cells in all stages analysed (3.5-18 weeks post-conception (WPC)) that specifically expressed KRT8, KRT18 and KRT19 at all stages and CD24 between 5.5-18 WPC. KRT18 and CD24 were independently used to label notochordal cells (7.5-14 weeks post-conception) and separate them from sclerotomal cells. Methodologies were developed to allow extraction of RNA of sufficient quality for microarray analysis from fixed, permeabilised (in the case of KRT18) and/or, labelled and sorted cells (CD24). Microarray analysis identified and real-time qPCR and, for some markers, immunohistochemistry, validated GRB14, SLC19A1, FGF10, ADORA3, TBXA2R, CDH6, ANPEP, CD69, CD24, RTN1, PRPH, MAP1B, ISL1 and CLDN1 as human notochordal cell markers. Ingenuity pathway analysis was performed to investigate the pathways/networks and upstream regulators and downstream effectors of notochordal cells. Inhibition of inflammation and angiogenesis were identified as relevant to notochordal cell biology, function and, possibly, to the known protective and anabolic role notochordal cells display in the IVD. Notochordal marker gene expression was identified in adult NP tissue, and negatively correlated with degeneration. Proteins encoded by ADORA3 and MAP1B were expressed by a proportion of adult NP cells, suggesting the presence of notochord-derived cells in the adult NP.Importantly, this is the first study to detail a methodology and successfully isolate human notochordal cells. Such methodology has the potential to be used to culture and investigate the biology of viable human notochordal cells (CD24+ve). Future studies aimed at developing cell-based therapies for IVD degeneration could also use these identified markers to assess appropriate stem cell differentiation to notochordal cells.
    Date of Award1 Aug 2016
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • The University of Manchester
    SupervisorJudith Hoyland (Supervisor) & Stephen Richardson (Supervisor)


    • Regeneration
    • Nucleus pulposus
    • Phenotype
    • Intervertebral disc
    • Notochordal cells
    • Degeneration
    • Notochord

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