Nucleic acid delivery to mesenchymal stem cells: A review of nonviral methods and applications

Andrew Hamann, Albert Nguyen, Angela K. Pannier

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Background: Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are multipotent stem cells that can be isolated and expanded from many tissues, and are being investigated for use in cell therapies. Though MSC therapies have demonstrated some success, none have been FDA approved for clinical use. MSCs lose stemness ex vivo, decreasing therapeutic potential, and face additional barriers in vivo, decreasing therapeutic efficacy. Culture optimization and genetic modification of MSCs can overcome these barriers. Viral transduction is efficient, but limited by safety concerns related to mutagenicity of integrating viral vectors and potential immunogenicity of viral antigens. Nonviral delivery methods are safer, though limited by inefficiency and toxicity, and are flexible and scalable, making them attractive for engineering MSC therapies. Main text: Transfection method and nucleic acid determine efficiency and expression profile in transfection of MSCs. Transfection methods include microinjection, electroporation, and nanocarrier delivery. Microinjection and electroporation are efficient, but are limited by throughput and toxicity. In contrast, a variety of nanocarriers have been demonstrated to transfer nucleic acids into cells, however nanocarrier delivery to MSCs has traditionally been inefficient. To improve efficiency, plasmid sequences can be optimized by choice of promoter, inclusion of DNA targeting sequences, and removal of bacterial elements. Instead of DNA, RNA can be delivered for rapid protein expression or regulation of endogenous gene expression. Beyond choice of nanocarrier and nucleic acid, transfection can be optimized by priming cells with media additives and cell culture surface modifications to modulate barriers of transfection. Media additives known to enhance MSC transfection include glucocorticoids and histone deacetylase inhibitors. Culture surface properties known to modulate MSC transfection include substrate stiffness and specific protein coating. If nonviral gene delivery to MSCs can be sufficiently improved, MSC therapies could be enhanced by transfection for guided differentiation and reprogramming, transplantation survival and directed homing, and secretion of therapeutics. We discuss utilized delivery methods and nucleic acids, and resulting efficiency and outcomes, in transfection of MSCs reported for such applications. Conclusion: Recent developments in transfection methods, including nanocarrier and nucleic acid technologies, combined with chemical and physical priming of MSCs, may sufficiently improve transfection efficiency, enabling scalable genetic engineering of MSCs, potentially bringing effective MSC therapies to patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number7
JournalJournal of Biological Engineering
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 18 2019


  • Cell therapy
  • Gene therapy
  • Human mesenchymal stem cells
  • Nonviral gene delivery
  • Priming
  • Transfection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology

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