A streamlined proliferation assay using mixed lymphocytes for evaluation of human mesenchymal stem cell immunomodulation activity

Maryanne C. Herzig*, Christopher P. Delavan, Katherine J. Jensen, Carolina Cantu, Robbie K. Montgomery, Barbara A. Christy, Andrew P. Cap, James A. Bynum

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Background: Mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) have been proposed for treatment of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), graft versus host disease (GVHD), wound healing and trauma. A consensus is building that immunomodulation by MSCs is important for therapeutic potential. MSCs suppress peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) proliferation in vitro, potentially reflecting an ability to suppress PBMC inflammatory responses in vivo. Current mixed lymphocyte reaction (MLR) assays commonly used to evaluate MSC potency generally rely on either direct co-culture or indirect culture using transwell systems for monitoring the proliferation of isolated PBMCs in the presence of mitotically inactive MSCs. Proliferation of PBMCs is monitored by several methods, including incorporation of radiolabeled nucleotides, BRDU labeling and ELISA assay or flow cytometry of carboxyfluorescein labeled PBMCs. Here we present a streamlined assay using MSCs in a direct co-culture system with unmodified MSCs using a luminescent ATP assay to evaluate both PBMC and MSC proliferation/survival. Methods: PBMCs were isolated from fresh anti-coagulated whole blood by centrifugation over Ficoll-Paque in LeucoSep tubes. Isolated PBMCs from 8 to 10 donors were pooled and cryopreserved at 1 × 107/ml in 50% RPMI medium,10% DMSO, 40% human AB serum. MSCs derived from bone marrow, adipose tissue or umbilical cord (BM-MSC, Ad-MSC, UC-MSC, respectively) were serially diluted starting at 50–60,000 cells/well and cultured in 96 well plates for 4–48 h in their respective medium. On Day 0, MSCs were washed, resuspended in PBMC media (RPMI with 10% FBS, 2 mM Glutamine, 10 mM HEPES, pH 7.4) and incubated with or without 150,000 freshly thawed pooled PBMCs/well, in the presence or absence of phytohemagglutinin A (PHA, 0–5 μg/ml). Proliferation of both MSCs (adherent) and PBMCs (non-adherent) was assessed by quantitation of ATP levels using the bioluminescent reagent Cell Titer-Glo (Promega). Culture supernatant contained PBMC, while washed adherent cells were primarily MSCs. Both cell types were incubated for 30 min with an equal volume of Cell Titer-Glo reagent and then assayed in white plates on a luminescence plate reader. Results: PBMC proliferation in response to PHA stimulation resulted in a robust increase in ATP by 72 h, with >6 fold increase over unstimulated PBMCs, which showed no increase. MSC proliferation was decreased <20% at the highest PHA concentrations. Co-culture with MSCs suppressed PBMC proliferation dependent upon MSC passage number, source, and prior growth conditions. Total time to complete the ATP assay was under an hour including incubations. With minimal manipulations in the assay, intra- and inter- assay variations averaged 11.1 and 15.7% respectively. Conclusions: Direct co-culture of live unmodified MSCs with freshly thawed pooled PBMCs gives a robust determination of immunosuppression by MSCs with unparalleled ease. Graded responses can be determined, allowing comparison of potency between MSC preparations as in comparisons between freshly thawed and cultured MSCs as well as interferon-γ licensed MSCs. With the 96 well plate assay, far fewer PBMCs are generally required than in a typical flow cytometry determination. This streamlined assay can be performed within 72 h, without irradiating cells and without specialized equipment.

Original languageEnglish
Article number112915
JournalJournal of Immunological Methods
StatePublished - Jan 2021
Externally publishedYes


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