Cardiosphere-derived resident cardiac stem cells (CDCs) are readily isolated from adult hearts and confer functional benefit in animal models of heart failure. To study cardiogenic differentiation in CDCs, we developed a method to genetically label and selectively enrich for cells that have acquired a cardiac phenotype. Lentiviral vectors achieved significantly higher transduction efficiencies in CDCs than any of the nine adeno-associated viral (AAV) serotypes tested. To define the most suitable vector system for reporting cardiogenic differentiation, we compared the cell specificity of five commonly-used cardiac-specific promoters in the context of lentiviral vectors. The promoter of the cardiac sodium-calcium exchanger (NCX1) conveyed the highest degree of cardiac specificity, as assessed by transducing seven cell types with each vector and measuring fluorescence intensity by flow cytometry. NCX1-GFP-positive CDC subpopulations, demonstrating prolonged expression of a variety of cardiac markers, could be isolated and expanded in vitro. Finally, we used chemical biology to validate that lentiviral vectors bearing the cardiac NCX1-promoter can serve as a highly accurate biosensor of cardiogenic small molecules in stem cells. The ability to accurately report cardiac fate and selectively enrich for cardiomyocytes and their precursors has important implications for drug discovery and the development of cell-based therapies.
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