Characterization and mutagenesis of Chinese hamster ovary cells endogenous retroviruses to inactivate viral particle release

Duroy, P.‐O., Bosshard, S., Schmid‐Siegert, E., Neuenschwander, S., Arib, G., Lemercier, P., Masternak, J., Roesch, L., Buron, F., Girod, P.‐A., Xenarios, I. and Mermod, N. (2020), Front Cover Image, Volume 117, Number 2, February 2020. Biotechnology and Bioengineering, 117: i-i. doi:10.1002/bit.27030


MAR-Mediated Transgene Integration into Permissive Chromatin and increased expression involve an SD-MMEJ-like DNA repair Pathway.

Kostyrko K, Neuenschwander S, Junier T, Regamey A, Iseli C, Schmid-Siegert E, Bosshard S, Majocchi S, LeFourn V, Girod PA, Xenarios I and Mermod N (2016). MAR-Mediated Transgene Integration into Permissive Chromatin and increased expression involve an SD-MMEJ-like DNA repair Pathway. Biotechnol Bioeng. 2016 Aug 29. doi: 10.1002/bit.26086.

Untargeted plasmid integration into mammalian cell genomes remains a poorly understood and inefficient process. The formation of plasmid concatemers and their genomic integration has been ascribed either to non-homologous end-joining (NHEJ) or homologous recombination (HR) DNA repair pathways. However, a direct involvement of these pathways has remained unclear. Here, we show that the silencing of many HR factors enhanced plasmid concatemer formation and stable expression of the gene of interest in Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells, while the inhibition of NHEJ had no effect. However, genomic integration was decreased by the silencing of specific HR components, such as Rad51, and DNA synthesis-dependent microhomology-mediated end-joining (SD-MMEJ) activities. Genome-wide analysis of the integration loci and junction sequences validated the prevalent use of the SD-MMEJ pathway for transgene integration close to cellular genes, an effect shared with matrix attachment region (MAR) DNA elements that stimulate plasmid integration and expression. Overall, we conclude that SD-MMEJ is the main mechanism driving the illegitimate genomic integration of foreign DNA in CHO cells, and we provide a recombination engineering approach that increases transgene integration and recombinant protein expression in these cells.

KEYWORDS: DNA recombination; chinese hamster ovary cells; immunoglobulin production; microhomology-mediated end-joining; recombinant protein expression


Epigenetic regulatory elements: recent advances in understanding their mode of action and use for recombinant protein production in mammalian cells.

Harraghy N, Calabrese D, Fisch I, Girod PA, LeFourn V, Regamey A, and Mermod N. (2015). Epigenetic regulatory elements: recent advances in understanding their mode of action and use for recombinant protein production in mammalian cells. Biotechnol. J., 10, 967-978.

Successful generation of high producing cell lines requires the generation of cell clones expressing the recombinant protein at high levels and the characterization of the clones’ ability to maintain stable expression levels. The use of cis-acting epigenetic regulatory elements that improve this otherwise long and uncertain process has revolutionized recombinant protein production. Here we review and discuss new insights into the molecular mode of action of the matrix attachment regions (MARs) and ubiquitously-acting chromatin opening elements (UCOEs), i.e. cis-acting elements, and how these elements are being used to improve recombinant protein production. These elements can help maintain the chromatin environment of the transgene genomic integration locus in a transcriptionally favorable state, which increases the numbers of positive clones and the transgene expression levels. Moreover, the high producing clones tend to be more stable in long-term cultures even in the absence of selection pressure. Therefore, by increasing the probability of isolating a high producing clone, as well as by increasing transcription efficiency and stability, these elements can significantly reduce the time and cost required for producing large quantities of recombinant proteins.

KEYWORDS: Epigenetics; Matrix attachment region; Recombinant protein production; Transgene silencing; Ubiquitously-acting chromatin opening element


CHO cell engineering to prevent polypeptide aggregation and improve therapeutic protein secretion.

Le Fourn V, Girod PA, Buceta M, Regamey A, and Mermod N. (2014). CHO cell engineering to prevent polypeptide aggregation and improve therapeutic protein secretion. Metab. Eng., 21:91-102.

The ability to efficiently produce recombinant proteins in a secreted form is highly desirable and cultured mammalian cells such as CHO cells have become the preferred host as they secrete proteins with human-like post-translational modifications. However, attempts to express high levels of particular proteins in CHO cells may consistently result in low yields, even for non-engineered proteins such as immunoglobulins. In this study, we identified the responsible faulty step at the stage of translational arrest, translocation and early processing for such a “difficult-to-express” immunoglobulin, resulting in improper cleavage of the light chain and its precipitation in an insoluble cellular fraction unable to contribute to immunoglobulin assembly. We further show that proper processing and secretion were restored by over-expressing human signal receptor protein SRP14 and other components of the secretion pathway. This allowed the expression of the difficult-to-express protein to high yields, and it also increased the production of an easy-to-express protein. Our results demonstrate that components of the secretory and processing pathways can be limiting, and that engineering of the secretory pathway may be used to improve the secretion efficiency of therapeutic proteins from CHO cells.

KEYWORDS: CHO cells; Immunoglobulins; Metabolic engineering; Protein secretion; Therapeutic proteins


MAR elements and transposons for improved transgene integration and expression.

Ley D, Harraghy N, Le Fourn V, Bire S, Girod PA, Regamey A, Rouleux-Bonnin F, Bigot Y, Mermod N.(2013). MAR elements and transposons for improved transgene integration and expression. PLoS One, 8, p. e62784

Reliable and long-term expression of transgenes remain significant challenges for gene therapy and biotechnology applications, especially when antibiotic selection procedures are not applicable. In this context, transposons represent attractive gene transfer vectors because of their ability to promote efficient genomic integration in a variety of mammalian cell types. However, expression from genome-integrating vectors may be inhibited by variable gene transcription and/or silencing events. In this study, we assessed whether inclusion of two epigenetic control elements, the human Matrix Attachment Region (MAR) 1-68 and X-29, in a piggyBac transposon vector, may lead to more reliable and efficient expression in CHO cells. We found that addition of the MAR 1-68 at the center of the transposon did not interfere with transposition frequency, and transgene expressing cells could be readily detected from the total cell population without antibiotic selection. Inclusion of the MAR led to higher transgene expression per integrated copy, and reliable expression could be obtained from as few as 2-4 genomic copies of the MAR-containing transposon vector. The MAR X-29-containing transposons was found to mediate elevated expression of therapeutic proteins in polyclonal or monoclonal CHO cell populations using a transposable vector devoid of selection gene. Overall, we conclude that MAR and transposable vectors can be used to improve transgene expression from few genomic transposition events, which may be useful when expression from a low number of integrated transgene copies must be obtained and/or when antibiotic selection cannot be applied.


High-level transgene expression by homologous recombination-mediated gene transfer.

Grandjean M, Girod PA, Calabrese D, Kostyrko K, Wicht M, Yerly F, Mazza C, Beckmann JS, Martinet D, Mermod N. Nucleic Acids Res. 2011 Aug;39(15):e104. Epub 2011 Jun 7

Gene transfer and expression in eukaryotes is often limited by a number of stably maintained gene copies and by epigenetic silencing effects. Silencing may be limited by the use of epigenetic regulatory sequences such as matrix attachment regions (MAR). Here, we show that successive transfections of MAR-containing vectors allow a synergistic increase of transgene expression. This finding is partly explained by an increased entry into the cell nuclei and genomic integration of the DNA, an effect that requires both the MAR element and iterative transfections. Fluorescence in situ hybridization analysis often showed single integration events, indicating that DNAs introduced in successive transfections could recombine. High expression was also linked to the cell division cycle, so that nuclear transport of the DNA occurs when homologous recombination is most active. Use of cells deficient in either non-homologous end-joining or homologous recombination suggested that efficient integration and expression may require homologous recombination-based genomic integration of MAR-containing plasmids and the lack of epigenetic silencing events associated with tandem gene copies. We conclude that MAR elements may promote homologous recombination, and that cells and vectors can be engineered to take advantage of this property to mediate highly efficient gene transfer and expression.

Identification of a potent MAR element from the mouse genome and assessment of its activity in stable and transient transfections.

Harraghy N, Regamey A, Girod PA, Mermod N. J Biotechnol. 2011 Apr 22

Gene expression often cycles between active and inactive states in eukaryotes, yielding variable or noisy gene expression in the short-term, while slow epigenetic changes may lead to silencing or variegated expression. Understanding how cells control these effects will be of paramount importance to construct biological systems with predictable behaviours. Here we find that a human matrix attachment region (MAR) genetic element controls the stability and heritability of gene expression in cell populations. Mathematical modeling indicated that the MAR controls the probability of long-term transitions between active and inactive expression, thus reducing silencing effects and increasing the reactivation of silent genes. Single-cell short-terms assays revealed persistent expression and reduced expression noise in MAR-driven genes, while stochastic burst of expression occurred without this genetic element. The MAR thus confers a more deterministic behavior to an otherwise stochastic process, providing a means towards more reliable expression of engineered genetic systems.

Matrix attachment regions are DNA sequences found throughout eukaryotic genomes that are believed to define boundaries interfacing heterochromatin and euchromatin domains, thereby acting as epigenetic regulators. When included in expression vectors, MARs can improve and sustain transgene expression, and a search for more potent novel elements is therefore actively pursued to further improve recombinant protein production. Here we describe the isolation of new MARs from the mouse genome using a modified in silico analysis. One of these MARs was found to be a powerful activator of transgene expression in stable transfections. Interestingly, this MAR also increased GFP and/or immunoglobulin expression from some but not all expression vectors in transient transfections. This effect was attributed to the presence or absence of elements on the vector backbone, providing an explanation for earlier discrepancies as to the ability of this class of elements to affect transgene expression under such conditions.


Use of human MAR elements to improve retroviral vector production.

Buceta M, Galbete JL, Kostic C, Arsenijevic Y, Mermod N. Gene Ther. 2011 Jan;18(1):7-13. Epub 2010 Sep 2.

Retroviral vectors have many favorable properties for gene therapies, but their use remains limited by safety concerns and/or by relatively lower titers for some of the safer self-inactivating (SIN) derivatives. In this study, we evaluated whether increased production of SIN retroviral vectors can be achieved from the use of matrix attachment region (MAR) epigenetic regulators. Two MAR elements of human origin were found to increase and to stabilize the expression of the green fluorescent protein transgene in stably transfected HEK-293 packaging cells. Introduction of one of these MAR elements in retroviral vector-producing plasmids yielded higher expression of the viral vector RNA. Consistently, viral titers obtained from transient transfection of MAR-containing plasmids were increased up to sixfold as compared with the parental construct, when evaluated in different packaging cell systems and transfection conditions. Thus, use of MAR elements opens new perspectives for the efficient generation of gene therapy vectors.


MAR elements regulate the probability of epigenetic switching between active and inactive gene expression.

Galbete JL, Buceta M, Mermod N. Mol Biosyst. 2009 Feb;5(2):143-50. Epub 2008 Dec 5.

Sustained transgene expression using MAR elements.

Harraghy N, Gaussin A, Mermod N. Curr Gene Ther. 2008 Oct;8(5):353-66.

Matrix attachment regions (MARs) are DNA sequences that may be involved in anchoring DNA/chromatin to the nuclear matrix and they have been described in both mammalian and plant species. MARs possess a number of features that facilitate the opening and maintenance of euchromatin. When incorporated into viral or non-viral vectors MARs can increase transgene expression and limit position-effects. They have been used extensively to improve transgene expression and recombinant protein production and promising studies on the potential use of MAR elements for mammalian gene therapy have appeared. These illustrate how MARs may be used to mediate sustained or higher levels of expression of therapeutic genes and/or to reduce the viral vector multiplicity of infection required to achieve consistent expression. More recently, the discovery of potent MAR elements and the development of improved vectors for transgene delivery, notably non-viral episomal vectors, has strengthened interest in their use to mediate expression of therapeutic transgenes. This article will describe the progress made in this field, and it will discuss future directions and issues to be addressed.


Genome-wide prediction of matrix attachment regions that increase gene expression in mammalian cells.

Girod PA, Nguyen DQ, Calabrese D, Puttini S, Grandjean M, Martinet D, Regamey A, Saugy D, Beckmann JS, Bucher P, Mermod N. Nat Methods. 2007 Sep;4(9):747-53. Epub 2007 Aug 5.

Gene transfer in eukaryotic cells and organisms suffers from epigenetic effects that result in low or unstable transgene expression and high clonal variability. Use of epigenetic regulators such as matrix attachment regions (MARs) is a promising approach to alleviate such unwanted effects. Dissection of a known MAR allowed the identification of sequence motifs that mediate elevated transgene expression. Bioinformatics analysis implied that these motifs adopt a curved DNA structure that positions nucleosomes and binds specific transcription factors. From these observations, we computed putative MARs from the human genome. Cloning of several predicted MARs indicated that they are much more potent than the previously known element, boosting the expression of recombinant proteins from cultured cells as well as mediating high and sustained expression in mice. Thus we computationally identified potent epigenetic regulators, opening new strategies toward high and stable transgene expression for research, therapeutic production or gene-based therapies.