Non-viral reprogramming of human nucleus pulposus cells with FOXF1 via extracellular vesicle delivery: an in vitro and in vivo study.
Intervertebral disc (IVD) degeneration is characterized by decreased cellularity and proteoglycan synthesis and increased inflammation, catabolism, and neural/vascular ingrowth. Regenerative methods for IVD degeneration are largely cell-therapy-based or involve viral vectors, which are associated with mutagenesis and undesired immune responses. The present study used bulk electroporation and engineered extracellular vesicles (EVs) to deliver forkhead-box F1 (FOXF1) mRNA to degenerate human nucleus pulposus (NP) cells as a minimally invasive therapeutic strategy for IVD regeneration. Bulk electroporation was used to investigate FOXF1 effects on human NP cells during a 4-week culture in 3D agarose constructs. Engineered EV delivery of FOXF1 into human IVD cells in monolayer was determined, with subsequent in vivo validation in a pilot mouse IVD puncture model. FOXF1 transfection significantly altered gene expression by upregulating healthy NP markers [FOXF1, keratin 19 (KRT19)], decreasing inflammatory cytokines [interleukin (IL)-1β, -6], catabolic enzymes [metalloproteinase 13 (MMP13)] and nerve growth factor (NGF), with significant increases in glycosaminoglycan accumulation in human NP cells. Engineered EVs loaded with FOXF1 demonstrated successful encapsulation of FOXF1 cargo and effective uptake by human NP cells cultured in monolayer. Injection of FOXF1-loaded EVs into the mouse IVD in vivo resulted in a significant upregulation of FOXF1 and Brachyury, compared to controls at 7 d post-injection, with no evidence of cytotoxicity. This is the first study to demonstrate non-viral delivery of FOXF1 and reprogramming of human NP cells in vitro and mouse IVD cells in vivo. This strategy represents a non-addictive approach for treating IVD degeneration and associated back pain.