Tanshinone IIA pretreatment protects free flaps against hypoxic injury by upregulating stem cell-related biomarkers in epithelial skin cells
- Zihan Xu†1,
- Lijun Wu†2,
- Yaowen Sun1,
- Yadong Guo1,
- Gaoping Qin1,
- Shengzhi Mu1,
- Ronghui Fan1,
- Benfeng Wang1,
- Wenjie Gao1 and
- Zhenxin Zhang1Email author
© Xu et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014
Received: 19 December 2013
Accepted: 27 August 2014
Published: 4 September 2014
Partial or total flap necrosis after flap transplantation is sometimes encountered in reconstructive surgery, often as a result of a period of hypoxia that exceeds the tolerance of the flap tissue. The purpose of this study was to determine whether Tanshinone IIA (TSA) pretreatment can protect flap tissue against hypoxic injury and improve its viability.
Primary epithelial cells isolated from the dorsal skin of mice were pretreated with TSA for 2 weeks. Cell Counting Kit-8 and Trypan Blue assays were carried out to examine the proliferation of TSA-pretreated cells after exposure to cobalt chloride. Polymerase chain reaction and western blot analysis were used to assess the expression of β-catenin, vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), sex determining region Y-box 2 (SOX2), OCT4 (also known as POU domain class 5 transcription factor 1), Nanog, and glycogen synthase kinase-3 beta (GSK-3β) in TSA-treated cells. In other experiments, after mice were pretreated with TSA for 2 weeks, a reproducible ischemic flap model was implemented, and the area of surviving tissue in the transplanted flaps was measured. Immunohistochemistry was conducted to examine Wnt signaling as well as stem cell- and angiogenesis-related biomarkers in epithelial tissue in vivo.
Epidermal cells, pretreated with TSA, showed enhanced resistance to hypoxia. Activation of the Wnt signaling pathway in TSA-pretreated cells was characterized by the upregulation of β-catenin and the downregulation of GSK-3β. The expression of SOX2, Nanog, and OCT4 were also higher in TSA-pretreated epithelial cells than in control cells. In the reproducible ischemic flap model, pretreatment with TSA enhanced resistance to hypoxia and increased the area of surviving tissue in transplanted flaps. The expression of Wnt signaling pathway components, stem-cell related biomarkers, and VEGF and CD34, which are involved in the regeneration of blood vessels, was also upregulated in TSA-pretreated flap tissue.
TSA pretreatment protects free flaps against hypoxic injury and increases the area of surviving tissue by activating Wnt signaling and upregulating stem cell-related biomarkers.
KeywordsFree flap Epithelial cell Traditional Chinese medicine Wnt Stem cell
Flaps are routinely used in plastic surgery for covering tissue defects resulting from trauma, ablative surgery, or congenital malformation, although partial or total flap necrosis after flap surgery is not uncommon [1, 2]. The transplantation of marrow mesenchymal cells  and adipose-derived stem cells  is effective in regenerating tissue, and Yi et al.  report that vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) gene therapy can enhance the survival and quality of grafted fat tissue in nude mice. It is also reported that hyperbaric O2 is clinically effective as an adjuvant therapy for improving wound healing and neovascularization and attenuating oxidative stress . At the same time, however, there are still clear potential disadvantages of these treatment strategies. Considering hyperbaric O2, there is a risk for O2 toxicity , progressive myopia , and grand mal seizures  after treatment. Furthermore, more research is needed into stem cell transplantation and gene therapy before experimental results can be translated into broad clinical application [9, 10]. As flap transplantation is becoming more widely used in reconstructive surgery, it is important to understand the mechanism of flap necrosis so that it can be prevented.
Ischemia occurs when there is inadequate blood flow to a specific tissue area after flap reconstruction, and it is an underlying cause of tissue hypoxia and flap loss . When hypoxia exceeds the tolerance level of epithelial cells, necrosis or scarring of flap tissue occurs. Although not all epithelial skin cells exhibit the same resilience to hypoxia, they are a promising source of stem cells that are resistant to noxious surroundings, exhibit anti-apoptotic characteristics, and possess enhanced DNA repair machinery, which are essential properties for cell regeneration and repair . Stem cells are defined by their capacity for self-renewal and their resistance to maladaptive microenvironments, including hypoxia, and there is now compelling evidence that multipotent stem cells contribute to recovery from hypoxia and epidermal repair [13, 14].
Recent advances in our understanding of epithelial stem cells, together with explorations of stem cell-related signaling pathways that control the regeneration of skin, open a new door for improvements in flap surgery. Wnt signaling, which is required for tissue repair and regeneration, is involved in the growth of various cell types and plays a critical role in stem cell maintenance and differentiation [15, 16]. SOX2, Nanog, and OCT4, which are regulated by Wnt signaling, are markers of somatic cell stemness . Takahashi et al.  induced pluripotent stem cells by transducing adult human dermal fibroblasts with defined factors such as OCT4 and SOX2. When Wnt signaling is reduced, its associated biomarkers, such as OCT4, SOX2, and β-catenin, are downregulated, and cell resistance to hypoxia and capacity for regeneration are also impaired [19, 20]. For instance, in the zebrafish eye, the inhibition of Wnt signaling results in an abrupt cessation of the normally continuous regeneration of the retina . Also, inhibition of Wnt signaling during skin wounding in mice prevents the formation of epithelial appendages, including hair and sweat glands, which results in prominent scarring of the epidermis . By contrast, elevating Wnt signaling within the wound site promotes the growth of adult skin . Several studies also show that increasing Wnt signaling stimulates healing of many different injuries, including bone fractures, retinal damage, skin wounding, and myocardial infarction . If Wnt signaling is required for tissue regeneration, can we find a convenient and effective way to elevate Wnt signaling in epithelial skin cells with limited regenerative capacity to improve the healing response?
Tanshinone IIA (TSA) is the most abundant diterpene quinone isolated from Danshen (Salvia miltiorrhiza) and has been used to treat cardiovascular diseases for more than 2000 years in China. Over the last decade, interest in the mechanism of its versatile protective effects in neurodegenerative diseases, metabolic abnormalities, and ischemic damage has been growing [24–30]. For instance, Zhang et al. demonstrated that TSA enhances cell resistance to hypoxic insult by upregulating miR-133 expression through activation of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK)/extracellular signal-related kinase (ERK) pathway in neonatal cardiomyocytes . Chen et al. showed that TSA has neuroprotective effects against ischemia/reperfusion (I/R) injury through the inhibition of macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF) and the release of tumor necrosis factor-α and interleukin-6 in rats . Furthermore, Zhu et al. found that TSA protects rat primary hepatocytes against carbon tetrachloride toxicity via inhibiting mitochondria permeability transition .
In the present study, we investigated whether TSA could protect free flaps against hypoxia-induced necrosis and improve tissue viability in the hypoxic zone. Next, we examined the regulation of the Wnt signaling pathway and stem cell-related biomarkers in epithelial cells and tissue. Finally, we tested whether TSA therapy activates the Wnt signaling pathway and upregulates stem cell-related biomarkers in epithelial cells.
Regents and antibodies
TSA injection (sulfotanshinone sodium injection, 5 mg/mL; First Biochemical Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., Shanghai, China) was used in the in vivo experiments. TSA monomer (Sigma, St. Louis, MO), a lyophilized powder (99.99% purity), which was first dissolved in dimethyl sulfoxide, and then diluted with phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) to the required concentration, was used in the in vitro experiments. Antibodies used for immunoblotting and/or immunohistochemistry were as follows: mouse anti-human monoclonal β-catenin (Abcam, Cambridge, MA, USA), rabbit anti-human polyclonal glycogen synthase kinase-3 beta (GSK-3β; Epitomics, Burlingame, CA, USA), rabbit anti-human polyclonal SOX2 (Epitomics, Burlingame, CA, USA), mouse anti-human monoclonal OCT4 (Abcam, Cambridge, MA, USA), mouse anti-human monoclonal Nanog (Abcam, Cambridge, MA, USA), rabbit anti-human polyclonal VEGF (Abcam, Cambridge, MA, USA), mouse anti-human monoclonal CD34 (Abcam, Cambridge, MA, USA), and mouse anti-human monoclonal actin (Beyotime, Shanghai, China).
Isolation and preparation of epidermal cells
To obtain epithelial cells of high purity, the dorsal skin of male BALB/C mice was processed as previously described with slight modifications . Immediately after mice were killed by cervical dislocation, the shaved dorsal skin was treated for 5 min with a depilatory agent, rinsed under running water, excised, and placed in ice-cold Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle’s Medium (DMEM). The subcutis was removed by scraping with a razor blade. The skin, consisting of dermis and epidermis, was minced with scissors, and the pieces were washed once with DMEM. The pieces of skin were excised and cut into smaller pieces in collagenase buffer containing 0.05% collagenase IV and 0.25% trypsin for 2 h. The digestion solution was filtered through nylon gauze, and the filtrate was sedimented twice by centrifugation at 70 × g for 5 min at 4°C. Finally, cells were collected, counted, and resuspended with DMEM containing 10% fetal bovine serum at a concentration of 5 × 105 in T25 flasks. Two days later, cells were digested with 0.25% trypsin and washed gently with PBS to remove fibroblasts resulting from the strong adhesion of epithelial cells. Finally, cells were digested and passaged by repeating the above steps three times to obtain epithelial cells with high purity.
Cell proliferation assay
Primary epithelial cells were pretreated with TSA (2 mg/L, IC50 98 mg/L, without pro-proliferative effect) for 2 weeks and transferred to glass cover slips and grown to 50% confluence. Cells were exposed to cobalt chloride (CoCl2 50 μmol/L) in vitro for 72 h to mimic hypoxia, fixed, permeabilized, and stained with 4’-6-diamidino-2-phenylindole (DAPI) to visualize cell nuclei using fluorescence microscopy (Olympus, Tokyo, Japan).
Other primary epithelial cells were pretreated with TSA (2 mg/L) for 2 weeks, and then exposed to CoCl2 (50 μmol/L) in vitro for 24, 48, 72, or 96 h. Cell proliferation was assessed using the Cell Counting Kit-8 (CCK-8; Dojindo Molecular technologies, inc, Japan). Results are expressed as the absorbance of each well at 450 nm (OD450). The half maximal inhibitory concentration (IC50) of CoCl2 was 179 μmol/L for a 72 h treatment time (data not shown). Almost half of the primary epithelial cells died and floated in the culture flasks at this concentration. After several preliminary experiments, a concentration of 50 μmol/L, which is far below the IC50, was selected to mimic hypoxia.
Trypan blue assay
Primary epithelial cells were pretreated with TSA for 2 weeks and exposed to CoCl2 (50 μmol/L) for 72 h. Cells were digested and suspended in PBS. Cell suspension solution (0.5 ml) and 0.4% Trypan Blue solution (0.5 ml) were added to a test tube and mixed thoroughly for 5 min to stain non-viable cells blue. Separate counting of viable and non-viable cells was performed, and cell viability (%) was calculated as (viable cells / (viable cells + non-viable cells)) × 100%.
Quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR)
Total RNA was extracted from TSA-treated primary epithelial cells and their parental cell lines using Trizol Reagent (Invitrogen, Grand Island, NY, USA). Total RNA was reversely transcribed using a Prime Script RT Reagent Kit (TaKaRa, Biotechnology, inc, Dalian, China). mRNA expression was determined by qRT-PCR using SYBR Premix Ex Taq II (TaKaRa). The primers used for the amplification of target genes were as follows:
β-catenin forward primer 5’-ATGGCTACTCAAGCTGAC-3’ and reverse primer 5’-CAGCACTTTCAGCACTCTGC-3’;
GSK-3β forward primer 5’-GTTGGTGGAAATAATAAAGG-3’ and reverse primer 5’-AAGTTGAAGAGGGCAGGT-3’;
SOX2 forward primer 5’-GTGGTGGTACGGGAAATCAC-3’ and reverse primer 5’-TAGCCAGGTTCGAGAATCCA-3’;
OCT4 forward primer 5’-CTGGGTTGATCCTCGGACCT-3’ and reverse primer 5’-CACAGAACTCATACGGCGGG-3’;
Nanog forward primer 5’-AAAGAATCTTCACCTATGCC-3’ and reverse primer 5’-GAAGGAAGAGGAGAGACAGT-3’;
VEGF forward primer 5’-TTACTGCTGTACCTCCACC-3’ and reverse primer 5’-ACAGGACGGCTTGAAGATG-3’; and
β-actin forward primer 5’-CAATGTGGCCGAGGACTTTG-3’ and reverse primer 5’-CATTCTCCTTAGAGAGAAGTGG-3’.
Western blot analysis
Expression of β-catenin, SOX2, OCT4, Nanog, VEGF, and actin in control and TSA-Treated epithelial cells was detected by western blot analysis as previously described with slight modifications . To prepare whole-cell protein extracts, cells were washed twice with phosphate-buffered saline and then lysed with a modified radio-immunoprecipitation assay buffer (50 mM Tris–HCl pH 7.4, 1% v/v NP-40, 0.25% v/v sodium deoxycholate, 150 mM NaCl, 1 mM EDTA, 1 mM PMSF, 1 mg/mL of protease inhibitors (leupeptin and pepstatin), 1 mM Na3VO4, and 1 mM NaF) on ice for 30 min. Insoluble material was removed by centrifugation at 12,000 p/min for 15 min at 4°C. The protein concentration of cell lysates was measured using the Bradford Protein Assay Kit (Beyotime, Shanghai, China), and 30 μg of protein samples were loaded on 10% polyacrylamide gels containing sodium dodecyl sulfate and separated by electrophoresis at a constant voltage of 70 V for 2 h and transferred onto 0.45-μm polyvinylidene fluoride membranes (Millipore Corporation, Billerica, MA, USA) at a constant voltage of 100 V for 3 h at 0°C. The membranes were probed with the specific primary antibodies followed by a horseradish peroxidase-conjugate secondary antibody (1:5,000) and detected by enhanced chemiluminescence (ECL kit from Pierce, Rockford, IL, USA). The following primary antibodies were used: β-catenin (dilution 1:1000), SOX2 (dilution 1:400), OCT4 (dilution 1:400), Nanog (dilution 1:500), VEGF (dilution 1:1000), and actin (dilution 1:1000). Unless otherwise indicated, immunoblot reagents were purchased from Beyotime.
Animals and ethics statement
BALB/c mice (aged 4–6 weeks and weighing approximately 20 g) were obtained from the Chinese Academy of Science and maintained under standard pathogen-free conditions. The experimental protocol was approved by the Shanghai Medical Experimental Animal Care Commission. All surgery was performed under sodium pentobarbital anesthesia, and all efforts were made to minimize suffering.
In vivo evaluation of free flap survival
Immunohistochemical staining of β-catenin, GSK-3 β, SOX2, OCT4, VEGF, and CD34 was carried out using a standard protocol with slight modifications . Epithelial skin tissue was fixed, embedded, and sliced into 5-μm sections. Then, the sections were permeabilized, blocked, and incubated with primary monoclonal antibodies overnight at 4°C. Sections were washed and incubated with anti-mouse or anti-rabbit HRP conjugated secondary antibody (Jackson). Finally, the sections were counterstained with hematoxylin, dehydrated, and cleared with xylene before finally being mounted. The following primary antibodies were used: β-catenin (dilution 1:500), SOX2 (dilution 1:150), OCT4 (dilution 1:200), VEGF (dilution 1:1000), and CD34 (dilution 1:500).
Data are expressed as mean ± standard error of the mean (SEM). Student’s t-tests were used to compare groups. Statistical analysis was performed using SPSS 17.0 software for Windows (SPSS Inc. Chicago, IL, USA). P < 0.05 was considered statistically significant.
Epithelial skin cells showed enhanced resistance to hypoxia after TSA pretreatment
Epithelial skin cells showed upregulated Wnt signaling and increased expression of stem cell-related biomarkers after TSA pretreatment
TSA pretreatment reduced flap necrosis in an ischemic flap model
TSA treatment upregulated Wnt signaling and increased the expression of stem cell-related markers in epithelial skin tissue
The human skin forms a large and important physical barrier between the body and its environment. In plastic surgery, tissue defects resulting from trauma, ablative surgery, or congenital malformation are frequently encountered, therefore flap transplantation is routinely used for re-establishing the epithelial barrier after injury. However, delayed healing or necrosis sometimes occurs when a free flap is transplanted from one area to another, which can increase the risk of infection and scar tissue formation or even lead to patient morbidity. Therefore, it is important for surgeons, who perform flap surgery, to have more knowledge of flap necrosis and how it can be prevented.
Ischemia is a condition of inadequate blood flow to a specific tissue area, which can lead to tissue hypoxia . When the period of hypoxia exceeds the tolerance of transplanted free flap tissue, necrosis will occur. Whereas common epithelial skin cells show poor survivability of hypoxia, epithelial stem cells show a powerful resistance to maladaptive microenvironments . In most organ systems, stem cells are thought to be the source of undifferentiated cells needed to maintain tissue homeostasis and to repair injury. One of the critical signaling pathways that regulates stem cell properties and plays an important role in skin organogenesis and regeneration is Wnt signaling, with several studies showing that Wnt signaling plays a critical role in tissue injury repair [21–23]. Phase I/II clinical trials demonstrate that enhancing Wnt signaling via antibody-mediated repression of Dkk1 is an effective means of stimulating new bone formation . Also, in states of debilitating chronic injury, transiently elevating Wnt signaling is beneficial for tissue regeneration . In the present experiment, we found that isolated epidermal cells that were pretreated with TSA showed upregulated Wnt signaling and enhanced resistance to hypoxia in vitro. We also found less necrosis and upregulated Wnt signaling in flap tissue after TSA pretreatment in vivo. Thus, although endogenous Wnt signaling is a prerequisite for tissue repair, there are obvious caveats to this general conclusion because of limited Wnt signaling activation in epithelial histiocytes [23, 40, 41]. Therefore, finding an effective and convenient way to pre-generate a sufficient amount of Wnt signaling activation may be important for injury restoration in hypoxic flaps.
Traditional Chinese medicine, a type of alternative and complementary medicine, is commonly used in Asian countries to treat cancer as well as cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, metabolic, and neurodegenerative diseases. TSA, which is isolated from Danshen (Salvia miltiorrhiza), has multiple targets including transcription factors, scavenger receptors, ion channels, kinases, pro- and anti-apoptotic proteins, growth factors, inflammatory mediators, and microRNA . For instance, Tang et al. showed that the neuroprotective role of TSA monotherapy is mediated by the PI3K/AKT signaling pathway . Chen et al. found that TSA alleviates the proinflammatory responses associated with I/R-induced injury by downregulating MIF expression . In addition, Zhang et al. showed that TSA enhances cell resistance to hypoxic insult by upregulating miR-133 expression through activation of MAPK-ERK1/2 . In the present study, we found that epithelial skin cells, pretreated with, TSA showed greater viability than control cells after CoCl2 treatment in vitro. We also found that pretreatment with TSA enhanced tissue resistance to hypoxia and resulted in larger areas of surviving tissue in an in vivo ischemic flap model. Furthermore, we demonstrated that activation of the Wnt signaling pathway with the increased expression of β-catenin and down-regulation of GSK-3β. The increased expression of stem cell-related markers such as SOX2, OCT4, and Nanog were also involved in the effect of TSA on epithelial cells and tissue with the activation of the Wnt signaling pathway. As to VEGF which is the base of angiogenesis was also up-regulated involve in the effect of TSA. So, we also found the increased expression CD34 after treated by TSA. And all of these stem cell- and angiogenesis -related markers determined the survival of flap during the process of ischemia and hypoxia after injury.
In summary, we provide experimental evidence that TSA pretreatment protects against necrosis of transplanted flap tissue in mice, suggesting that TSA pretreatment might be a potential way to improve the success of free flap surgery in humans. However, several fundamental questions remain concerning the ability of TSA to increase the stemness of epithelial skin cells. Therefore, additional animal models of ischemia should be utilized to further investigate the relationship between TSA and stemness, and future studies could also determine whether TSA can be clinically useful for treating human ischemic tissues and organs.
TSA pretreatment protects free flaps against hypoxic injury and increases the area of surviving tissue in transplanted flaps by activating Wnt signaling and upregulating stem cell-related biomarkers in epithelial skin cells.
Macrophage migration inhibitory factor
- CoCl2 :
Vascular endothelial growth factor
Sex determining region Y-box 2
Cell Counting Kit-8
Glycogen synthase kinase-3 beta
Mitogen-activated protein kinase
Extracellular signal-related kinase
Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle’s Medium
Quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction.
This research project was supported by grants from the Shaanxi Science and Technology Development Plan Project (No. 2011kjxx-26). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
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