Myogenic cells have a limited life span in culture, which prevents expansion at clinically relevant levels, and seriously limits any potential use in cell replacement or ex vivo gene therapy. We developed a strategy for reversibly immortalizing human primary myogenic cells, based on retrovirus- mediated integration of a wild-type SV40 large-T antigen (Tag), excisable by means of the Cre-Lox recombination system. Myogenic cells were transduced with a vector (LTTN-LoxP) expressing the SV40 Tag under the control of an LTR modified by the insertion of a LoxP site in the U3 region. Clonal isolates of Tag-positive cells showed modified growth characteristics and a significantly extended life span, while maintaining a full myogenic potential. Transient expression of Cre recombinase, delivered by transfection or adenoviral vector transduction, allowed excision of the entire provirus with up to >90% efficiency. Cultures of Cre-treated (Tag-) or untreated (Tag+) myogenic cells were genetically labeled with a lacZ retroviral vector, and injected into the regenerating muscle of SCID/bg immunodeficient mice. Tag- cells underwent terminal differentiation in vivo, giving rise to clusters of β- Gal+ hybrid fibers with an efficiency comparable to that of control untransduced cells. Tag+ cells could not be detected after injection. Neither Tag+ nor Tag- cells formed tumor in this xenotransplantation model. Reversible immortalization by Tag therefore allows the expansion of primary myogenic cells in culture without compromising their ability to differentiate in vivo, and could represent a safe method by which to increase the availability of these cells for clinical application.
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