Generation and characterization of corticospinal neurons from human embryonic stem cells

Generation and characterization of corticospinal neurons from human embryonic stem cells

Funding Type: 
Basic Biology III
Grant Number: 
RB3-02143
Award Value: 
$1,355,063
Disease Focus: 
Neurological Disorders
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
Cell Line Generation: 
iPS Cell
Status: 
Active
Public Abstract: 
A major goal of stem cell research is to generate various functional human cell types that can be used to better understand how these cells work and to use them directly in therapies. There are currently no effective treatments, let alone a cure, for many neurological conditions. Two particular devastating neurological conditions, spinal cord injury and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease) share a common element. That is, in both conditions, the corticospinal motor neurons that control skilled voluntary movement are severely damaged, leading to significant loss of motor control. There has been extensive research on spinal cord injury and ALS in recent years. In the field of spinal cord injury, much effort has been devoted to repairing the damaged nerve paths, but this has turned out to be extremely challenging. The work on ALS, on the other hand, has mostly focused on the spinal motor neurons (often referred to as the lower motor neurons in the context of ALS). Our proposed study focuses on the corticospinal motor neurons (or the upper motor neurons) and, more broadly, the subcerebral projection neurons. Taking clues from studies in mice, we aim to understand how the subcerebral projection neurons including the corticospinal motor neurons can be made from human embryonic stem cells. We will focus on the later steps in differentiation that are not well understood, which gave rise to different types of neurons in the cerebral cortex. To aid in this process, we have engineered a fluorescent reporter in human embryonic stem cells, which, when the stem cells are turned into corticospinal motor neurons and related subcerebral projection neurons, will light up – literally. We will probe the molecular control of this process and determine if corticospinal motor neurons made in a culture dish, when introduced back into an organism, can send projections to the spinal cord, as they would normally do during development. Most of our knowledge about the development of corticospinal motor neurons comes from studies with mouse models. As there are likely to be important differences between humans and mice, we will pay special attention to the similarities and differences between mouse and human corticospinal motor neurons. Knowledge gained from this study will pave the way to make better disease-models-in-a-dish for neurological conditions such as ALS and to develop therapies for ALS, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, stroke and other neurological conditions when corticospinal motor neurons are damaged.
Statement of Benefit to California: 
Neurological conditions affect millions of Californians each year. Spinal cord injury is one particularly debilitating neurological condition. The disability, loss of earning power, and loss of personal freedom associated with spinal cord injury is devastating for the injured individual, and creates a financial burden of an estimated $400 million annually for the state of California. Research is the only solution as currently there is no cure for spinal cord injury. A major functional deficit for patients of spinal cord injury is the loss of motor control. Corticospinal motor neurons mediate skilled, voluntary movement in humans and damage to these neurons leads to severe disability. Our proposed study focuses on the understanding of how corticospinal motor neurons and, more broadly, subcerebral projection neurons can be made from human embryonic stem cells under culture conditions, and how they can be introduced back to central nervous system. Understanding this process will allow scientists to design ways to use these cells for transplantation therapies not only for spinal cord injury, but also for other neurological conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease). Effective treatments promoting functional repair will significantly increase personal independence for people with spinal cord injury and decrease the financial burden for the State of California. More importantly, treatments that enhance functional recovery will improve the quality of life for those who are directly or indirectly affected by spinal cord injury, ALS and other neurological conditions.
Progress Report: 

Year 1

A major goal of stem cell research is to generate various functional human cell types to promote repair or replacement in injury or disease. Our lab studies the repair of central nervous system after injury such as a spinal cord injury. We have been utilizing a fluorescent reporter line we developed with CIRM funding to enrich and characterize human corticospinal motor neurons, a neuronal population that is damaged or lost in spinal cord injury and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease). These neurons control skilled voluntary movement in humans, the loss or damage of which leads to paralysis and disability. We have made significant progress in this funding period. We validated that our fluorescent reporter works as intended. We found that reporter gene expression represents cells of different developmental stages at different times of differentiation. We have done the first batches of transplantation studies to show that it is possible to use the reporter gene to track the cells and cellular processes in the host central nervous system. In addition, we have developed a separate reporter gene to universally mark all embryonic stem-derived cells, a tool that may be useful to other stem cell researchers. We are now ready to move to the next phase of the project: to characterize corticospinal motor neurons in more detail in vitro and in vivo. Knowledge gained from this study will pave the way to make better disease-models-in-a-dish for neurological conditions such as ALS and to develop therapies for ALS, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, stroke and other neurological conditions when corticospinal motor neurons are damaged of lost.

Year 2

A major goal of stem cell research is to generate various functional human cell types to promote repair or replacement in injury or disease. Our lab studies the repair of central nervous system after injury such as a spinal cord injury. We have been utilizing a fluorescent reporter line we developed with CIRM funding to derive and characterize human corticospinal motor neurons, a neuronal population that is damaged or lost in spinal cord injury and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease). These neurons are of paramount importance to skilled voluntary movement in humans, the loss or damage of which leads to paralysis and disability. The goal for making a reporter line is that whenever the cells light up (literally), we will know what they have become the type of cells that we would wish to get. Following last year’s initial progress, we have made significant progress in this funding period. We found that our fluorescent reporter is useful in following the desired cell types throughout cell growth in culture dishes or after we introduce these cells into animal models by transplantation. We have performed experiments to validate the identity and usefulness of these cells. In culture, these cells exhibit the desired signature gene expression pattern, electrophysiological properties and morphologies as well. We will continue to improve our culture condition to maximize efficiency and purity. Meanwhile, we have transplanted these cells into the mouse brain to study them in the complex central nervous system because many of the properties cannot be studied in cell culture such as the connection of nerve cells to other brain area or spinal cord. We were excited to find that these cells, once transplanted, can survive, integrate into the mouse central nervous system, and send out long neuronal processes characteristic of endogenous nerve cells. Some of the projections appear to take the path of the projections of the corticospinal motor neurons, indicating that our approach will likely succeed. Thanks to CIRM’s support, we will continue to investigate the various parameters to improve our transplantation studies. Knowledge gained from this study will pave the way to make better disease-models-in-a-dish for neurological conditions such as ALS and to develop therapies for ALS, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, stroke and other neurological conditions when corticospinal motor neurons are damaged of lost.

Year 3

A major goal of stem cell research is to generate various functional human cell types from stem cells both for developing cell transplantation therapies and for better understanding human biology. Our lab studies the repair of central nervous system after injury and in particular spinal cord injury. To complement our studies of the molecular control of axon regeneration using animal models of spinal cord injury, we have been developing ways to derive human corticospinal motor neurons from human embryonic stem cells through this CIRM funded project. These neurons are of paramount importance to skilled voluntary movement in humans, loss or damage of which leads to paralysis and disability in patients of spinal cord injury and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease). We took advantage of a reporter line we developed with a prior CIRM SEED grant to generate human corticospinal motor neurons. This reporter line carries a fluorescent reporter gene under the control of an endogenous gene encoding a molecular marker and determinant of corticospinal motor neurons, Fezf2. The idea was that whenever the cells carrying the reporter gene lights up – literally, we would know the cells are expressing Fezf2. Using this approach, we have learned quite a bit about human cells that express Fezf2. First, there are a large population of human neural stem cells that express Fezf2 early in neural differentiation, which is likely mirrored in human development. Fezf2 positive neural stem cells can become Fezf2 positive neurons, but they can also become Fezf2 negative neurons. On the contrary, Fezf2 negative stem/progenitor cells do not become Fezf2 positive neurons. During neural differentiation in culture starting from human embryonic stem cells, Fezf2 expression is dynamic. Earlier Fezf2-expressing neural stem cells have different properties from the late Fezf2-expressing neural stem cells in that they have different capabilities to turning into differential neuronal types. Particular in this last year of funding, we conducted in-depth characterization of the molecular signature of Fezf2 positive and negative neural stem/progenitor cells, as well as neurons that had been derived from these progenitors, at different times in differentiation. Hierarchical cluster analysis not only provided new insights on the different cell populations in the differentiation culture over time but also on the different molecular markers based on studies in mice. We have also extended our in vivo transplantation studies to determine how well these neural progenitor cells may survive and integrate into the mouse nervous system. The data indicate that neural progenitors that express the fluorescence reporter can survive, integrate into the host nervous system and send out extensive axonal trajectories. Some axons grew along the appropriate paths expected for corticospinal and related subcerebral projection neurons while others appear to wonder off the course. These data indicate that one challenge in future research will be to elucidate mechanisms of control the re-connection of transplanted stem cell derivatives with appropriate host targets when cell transplantation therapies are used to replace lost or damaged neurons in disease or injury.

© 2013 California Institute for Regenerative Medicine