Outline Research
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Title Name Researcher information
Professor NISHIMURA Emi
Assistant Professor MATSUMURA Hiroyuki
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Stem cell systems play fundamental roles in sustaining tissue turnover and homeostasis. Our goal is to understand the mechanisms of tissue homeostasis driven by stem cell systems in mammals and to apply that knowledge to better understand the mechanisms underlying tissue/organ aging, cancer development and other diseases associated with aging. We further aim to apply this knowledge to drug discovery, regenerative medicine and the prevention and treatment of age-associated diseases.
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1) Identification of stem cells in the skin
The skin is the largest organ in the body. Hair follicles are mini-organs located in the skin that constantly renew themselves by alternate phases of growth, regression and rest. During this process, mature melanocytes (pigment cells) in hair follicles are replaced by a new cell population in each hair cycle. We previously identified the source of those melanocytes, “melanocyte stem cells” (McSCs), which are located in the hair follicle bulge and supply mature melanocytes required for hair and skin pigmentation (Nishimura EK et al. Nature, 2002). Subsequently, we identified similar McSCs in non-hair-bearing skin areas (Okamoto N et al. PCMR, 2014). Further, we recently succeeded in identifying epidermal stem cells with sufficient self-renewing potential by using genetic tracing of stem cell clones (Liu N et al. Nature, 2019).

2) Mechanisms of stem cell maintenance
The underlying mechanisms of stem cell maintenance are a fundamental issue in stem cell biology and medicine. We previously found that the niche microenvironment plays a dominant role in the fate determination of McSCs (Nishimura EK et al. Nature, 2002). That finding prompted us to further study the mechanisms involved and led us to demonstrate that hair follicle stem cells (HFSCs), which reside in the hair follicle bulge, serve as a functional niche for the maintenance of McSCs (Nishimura EK et al. Cell Stem Cell, 2010)(Tanimura S et al. Cell Stem Cell, 2011). The niche functions of HFSCs are mediated by extrinsic niche factors, including transforming growth factor β (TGF-β), that are secreted from HFSCs to maintain McSCs in a quiescent and immature state. Meanwhile, intrinsic defects in stem cells, such as those caused by Mitf or Bcl2 deficiencies in mice, also induce the depletion of McSCs, which leads to the progressive expression of the hair graying phenotype. Therefore, we concluded that the incomplete maintenance of McSCs either by defective signaling from the stem cell niche or by intrinsic defects in stem cells, results in an insufficient supply of mature melanocytes for hair pigmentation in mice expressing the progressive hair graying phenotype.

3) A stemness checkpoint underlies the quality maintenance of tissues
Physiological hair graying and hair thinning are typical outward signs of aging in mammals, yet the mechanisms underlying those phenotypes had been largely unclear. We found that the incomplete maintenance of McSCs during the course of aging causes hair graying (Nishimura EK et al. Science, 2004). We then showed that genotoxic stress triggers/accelerates the aging process and abrogates the self-renewal of McSCs by triggering their differentiation without inducing cellular senescence. Further study of aged wild-type mice and progeroid mouse models, including ATM-deficient mice, revealed that a “stemness checkpoint”, which determines whether stem cells are qualified to self-renew or rather are forced to differentiate, maintains the quality of the stem cell pool and eliminates stressed/damaged stem cells from tissues (Inomata K et al. Cell, 2009). Similar checkpoint mechanisms have been found in HFSCs (Matsumura H et al. Science, 2016) and in epidermal stem cells (Liu N et al. Nature, 2019) by us and also in other somatic stem cells by other groups. We are currently studying the underlying molecular mechanism.

4) Dynamic elimination of aged stem cells causes hair follicle aging
To study the fate and dynamics of aged somatic stem cells, we performed in vivo fate tracing analysis of HFSCs and demonstrated that the dynamic elimination of HFSCs through their epidermal differentiation causes the stepwise miniaturization of hair follicles and eventual hair loss in mice. The DNA damage response in HFSCs causes proteolysis of Type XVII Collagen (COL17A1/BP180), a critical molecule for HFSC maintenance, to trigger HFSC aging that is characterized by the loss of stemness signatures and epidermal differentiation. Aged HFSCs are thus cyclically eliminated from the skin through their epidermal differentiation-mediated shedding from the skin surface, thereby causing hair follicle miniaturization (Figure 2). The aging process can be recapitulated by Col17a1-deficiency and prevented by the forced maintenance of COL17A1 in HFSCs, demonstrating that COL17A1 in HFSCs orchestrates the stem cell-centric aging program of the epithelial mini-organ (Matsumura H et al. Science, 2016). We are currently trying to identify the stem cell division program for organ aging.

5) Stem cell competition in the epidermis underlies skin homeostasis and aging
The skin protects living organisms from the outside world by acting as a barrier throughout the life-span, suggesting that the skin has more robust and flexible anti-aging mechanisms than mini-organs such as hair follicles. We have performed in vivo clonal analysis in mice by focusing on the expression of the hemidesmosomal protein COL17A1 by epidermal stem cells. Those studies revealed that the expression of COL17A1 fluctuates physiologically through genomic/oxidative stress-induced proteolysis, and that the resulting differential expression of COL17A1 in individual stem cells generates a driving force for cell competition (Figure 3). Clones that express high levels of COL17A1 divide symmetrically and outcompete/eliminate adjacent stressed clones that express low levels of COL17A1 and divide asymmetrically. Stem cells with higher potential or quality are thus selected for homeostasis, but their eventual loss of COL17A1 limits their competition, thereby causing aging. The resulting hemidesmosome fragility and stem cell delamination depletes adjacent melanocytes and fibroblasts to promote skin aging. Conversely, the forced maintenance of COL17A1 rescues skin organ aging, thereby indicating potential new approaches for anti-aging therapeutic intervention.

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