Embryonic stem (ES) cells have the potential to differentiate into various cell types of the three germ layers. They are therefore a useful cell source for transplantation and tissue engineering. In the present paper, we studied the influences of ascorbic acid (AA), dexamethasone (Dex), and 17β-estradiol (E2) on the osteogenic differentiation of ES cells. Differentiation into the osteoblastic phenotype was demonstrated by the appearance of osteoblastic markers such as alkaline phosphatase (ALP), the transcription factor core binding factor alpha 1 (Cbfa1), and osteocalcin, which were detected by immunohistochemistry. Bone nodule formation, including the deposition of collagen fibrils and matrix mineralization, was studied by transmission electron microscopy. In all our cultures, a progressive upregulation of ALP activity was observed, followed by a decline after 21 d of culture. Cbfa1 was first detected after 14 d in culture and increased during the culture time. The addition of E2 resulted in a decrease in the formation of bone-like nodules in the embryoid bodies (EBs) compared with the EBs cultured in the presence of AA and AA supplemented with Dex. An increased osteocalcin concentration was observed in the EBs cultured with Dex and E2 compared with the EBs cultured in a control medium. EBs cultured in the presence of E2 resulted in a culture with a high amount of osteoblast-like cells not entrapped in bone-like nodules, creating the possibility to obtain a purified osteoblast population for bone tissue engineering.
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