Neurological Disorders

Coding Dimension ID: 
303
Coding Dimension path name: 
Neurological Disorders

Spinal ischemic paraplegia: modulation by human embryonic stem cell implant

Funding Type: 
Comprehensive Grant
Grant Number: 
RC1-00131
ICOC Funds Committed: 
$2 445 716
Disease Focus: 
Spinal Cord Injury
Neurological Disorders
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
oldStatus: 
Closed
Public Abstract: 
schemia-induced paraplegia often combined with a qualitatively defined increase in muscle tone (i.e. spasticity and rigidity) is a serious complication associated with a temporary aortic cross-clamping ( a surgical procedure to repair an aortic aneurysm). In addition to spinal ischemic injury-induced spasticity and rigidity a significant population of patients with traumatic spinal injury develop a comparable qualitative deficit i.e. debilitating muscle spasticity. At present there are no effective treatment which would lead to a permanent amelioration of spasticity and rigidity and corresponding improvement in ambulatory function. In recent studies, by using rat model of spinal ischemic injury we have demonstrated that spinal transplantation of rat or human neurons leads to a clinically relevant improvement in motor function and correlates with a long term survival and maturation of grafted cells. More recently we have demonstrated a comparable maturation of human spinal precursors grafted spinally in immunosupressed minipig. In the proposed set of experiments we wish to characterize a therapeutical potential of human blastocyst-derived neuronal precursors when grafted into previously ischemia- injured rat or minipig spinal cord. Defining the potency of spinally grafted hESC-derived neuronal precursors in two in vivo models of spinal ischemic injury serves to delineate the differences and/or uniformity in the cell maturation when cells are transplanted in 2 different animals species and can provide an important data set for future implications of such a therapies in human patients.
Statement of Benefit to California: 
Traumatic or ischemic spinal cord injury affect a significant number of people and in majority of cases can lead to a variable degree of motor dysfunction (such as paraparesis or paraplegia) and often combined with increased muscle tone (i.e. spasticity and rigidity). In contrast to other organ systems the central nervous system and spinal cord in particular has minimal or no neuron-regenerative capacity and therefore if a significant population of spinal cord neurons or fibers is lost the resulting deficit is permanent and irreversible. At present there is no effective therapy which would lead to a clinically relevant neurological improvement in patients with ischemia or trauma-induced paraplegia. Initial experimental data using paraplegic rats show that spinal grafting of rat or human neuronal precursors can provide a significant amelioration of spasticity and lead to improved ambulatory function. In the proposed set of experiments we wish to characterize a therapeutical potential of human blastocyst-derived neuronal precursors when grafted into previously ischemia- injured rat or minipig spinal cord. If proven effective such a treatment can potentially be used in patients with spinal ischemic paraplegia or in patients with other spinal injury-related dysfunction associated with a region-specific neuronal loss.
Progress Report: 
  • Transient spinal cord ischemia is a serious complication associated with aortic cross clamping (a surgical procedure required for the repair of aortic aneurysm). Neurological dysfunction resulting from transient spinal cord ischemia may be clinically expressed as paraparesis, fully-developed spastic paraplegia, or flaccid paraplegia. In spastic paraplegia, the underlying spinal pathology is characterized by a selective loss of inhibitory cells (neurons) in the ischemia-injured spinal cord. That loss of inhibition produces increased muscle tone (i.e. spasticity). While there are some current pharmacological treatments for spasticity that provide a certain degree of functional improvement, there are no effective therapies that lead to clinically-relevant, long-lasting recovery. One of the therapeutic approaches pursued by our group is the characterization of functional changes after spinal cord transplantation of neuronal cells previously generated in culture with the goal of replacing missing inhibitory neurons in the spinal cord. In our recent experiments, we characterized the survival and differentiation of human embryonic stem cell-derived neural precursors that were grafted into the spinal cord of rats with a previous spinal ischemic injury. Our initial data demonstrate that spinal grafting of neural precursors generated from 3 independent human embryonic stem cell lines is associated with long-term cell engraftment of grafted cells. A significant population of the grafted cells displayed neuronal differentiation, progressive maturation, and expression of markers which are typical for mature, functional human neurons. Initial analysis of grafted cells also indicated the development of functional connectivity between transplanted neurons and surviving neurons of the recipient. A significant advancement in our effort to characterize the effect of such a treatment was the use of a sorting technique which permits the generation of large quantities of highly-purified neural precursors. The capacity to generate such large quantities of pure cell populations is particularly important in our large preclinical animal model (minipig), which is essential to move this therapeutic approach to clinic. In addition, we characterized an efficient cell freezing protocol. The sorting and freezing techniques together allow large quantities of identical cell populations to be frozen for future transplantation, ensuring a group of animals receives an identical cell population. Our plan for the next year is to perform long-term functional recovery studies in our minipig model of spinal ischemia.
  • Transient spinal cord ischemia is a serious complication associated with aortic cross clamping, i.e., the procedure required to replace aortic aneurysm. The major neurological deficit resulting from spinal ischemic injury is the loss of motor function in lower extremities, also called paraplegia. The pathological mechanism leading to the loss of function is the result of progressive death of spinal cells (i.e., neurons) in the affected region of the spinal cord. At present there is no effective therapy for spinal ischemia-induced paraplegia.
  • In our previous completed studies, we have characterized the survival and neuronal maturation of human embryonic stem cell derived neural precursors analyzed at 2 weeks to 2 months after spinal transplantation in spinal ischemia-injured rats. A comparable survival and maturation was seen compared to fetal human spinal cord-derived cells. In our next studies, we will define the therapeutic potency of spinally grafted ES-NPCs once cells are grafted into the spinal cord of immunodeficient rats (i.e., animals which do not require immunosuppression) and the effect of cell grafting assessed for up to 4 months after cell transplantation. In subsequent studies, the degree of treatment effect will be studied in continuously immunosuppressed minpigs with previous spinal ischemic injury.
  • Transient spinal cord ischemia is a serious complication associated with aortic cross clamping, i.e., the procedure required to replace aortic aneurysm. The major neurological deficit resulting from spinal ischemic injury is the loss of motor function in the lower extremities, also called paraplegia. The pathological mechanism leading to the loss of function is the result of progressive death of spinal cells (i.e., neurons) in the affected region of the spinal cord. At present there is no effective therapy for spinal ischemia-induced paraplegia. In our previous completed studies, we have characterized the survival and neuronal maturation of human embryonic stem cell-derived neural precursors grafted into the lumbar spinal cord in immunodeficient rats and have demonstrated good tolerability of long-term immunosuppression in rodents and minipigs after using subcutaneously implanted tacrolimus pellets. In our ongoing studies, our goal is to characterize the effect of clonally expanded embryonic stem cell-derived neural precursors after spinal grafting in long-term immunosuppressed rats and minipigs and immunodeficient rats with previous spinal ischemic injury.

MEF2C-Directed Neurogenesis From Human Embryonic Stem Cells

Funding Type: 
Comprehensive Grant
Grant Number: 
RC1-00125
ICOC Funds Committed: 
$3 035 996
Disease Focus: 
Parkinson's Disease
Neurological Disorders
Stroke
Neurological Disorders
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
Cell Line Generation: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
oldStatus: 
Closed
Public Abstract: 
Understanding differentiation of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) provides insight into early human development and will help directing hESC differentiation for future cell-based therapies of Parkinson’s disease, stroke and other neurodegenerative conditions. The PI’s laboratory was the first to clone and characterize the transcription factor MEF2C, a protein that can direct the orchestra of genes to produce a particular type of cell, in this case a nerve cell (or neuron). We have demonstrated that MEF2C directs the differentiation of mouse ES cells into neurons and suppresses glial fate. MEF2C also helps keep new nerve cells alive, which is very helpful for their successful transplantation. However, little is known about the role of MEF2C in human neurogenesis, that is, its ability to direct hESC differentiation into neuronal lineages such as dopaminergic neurons to treat Parkinson’s disease and its therapeutic potential to promote the generation of nerve cells in stem cell transplantation experiments. The goal of this application is to fill these gaps. The co-PI’s laboratory has recently developed a unique procedure for the efficient differentiation of hESCs into a uniform population of neural precursor cells (NPCs), which are progenitor cells that develop from embryonic stem cells and can form different kinds of mature cells in the nervous system. Here, we will investigate if MEF2C can instruct hESC-derived NPCs to differentiate into nerve cells, including dopaminergic nerve cells for Parkinson’s disease or other types of neurons that are lost after a stroke. Moreover, we will transplant hESC-NPCs engineered with MEF2C to try to treat animal models of stroke and Parkinson’s disease. We will characterize known and novel MEF2C target genes to identify critical components in the MEF2C transcriptional network in the clinically relevant cell population of hESC-derived neural precursor cells (hESC-NPCs). Specifically we will: 1) determine the function of MEF2C during in vitro neurogenesis (generation of new nerve cells) from hESC-NPCs; 2) investigate the therapeutic potential of MEF2C engineered hESC-NPCs in Parkinson’s and stroke models; 3) determine the MEF2C DNA (gene) binding sites and perform a “network” analysis of MEF2C target genes in order to understand how MEF2C works in driving the formation of new nerve cells from hESCs.
Statement of Benefit to California: 
Efficient and controlled neuronal differentiation from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) is mandatory for developing future clinical cell-based therapies. Strategies to direct differentiation towards neuronal vs. glial fate are critical for the development of a uniform population of desired neuronal specificities (e.g., dopaminergic neurons for Parkinson’s disease (PD)). Our laboratory was the first to clone and characterize the transcription factor MEF2C, the major isoform of MEF2 found in the developing brain. Based on our encouraging preliminary results that were obtained with mouse (m)ESC-derived and human fetal brain-derived neural precursors, we propose to investigate if MEF2C enhances neurogenesis from hESCs. In addition to neurogenic activity, we have shown that MEF2C exhibits an anti-apoptotic (that is, anti-death) effect and therefore increases cell survival. This dual function of MEF2C is extremely valuable for the purpose of transplantation of MEF2C-engineererd neural precursors. Additionally, we found MEF2 binding sites in the Nurr1 promoter region, which in the proper cell context, should enhance dopaminergic (DA) neuronal differentiation. We hypothesize that hESC-derived neural precursors engineered with MEF2C will selectively differentiate into neurons, which will be resistant to apoptotic death and not form tumors such as teratomas. We believe that our proposed research will lead us to a better understanding of the role of MEF2C in hESC differentiation to neurons. These results will lead to novel and effective means to direct hESCs to become neurons and to resist cell death. This information will ultimately lead to novel, stem cell-based therapies to treat stroke and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. We also believe that an effective, straightforward, and broadly understandable way to describe the benefits to the citizens of the State of California that will flow from the stem cell research we propose to conduct is to couch the work in the familiar, everyday business concept of “Return on Investment.” The novel therapies and reconstructions that will be developed and accomplished as a result of our research program and the many related programs that will follow will provide direct benefits to the health of California citizens. In addition, this program and its many complementary programs will generate potentially very large, tangible monetary benefits to the citizens of California. These financial benefits will derive directly from two sources. The first source will be the sale and licensing of the intellectual property rights that will accrue to the state and its citizens from this and the many other stem cell research programs that will be financed by CIRM. The second source will be the many different kinds of tax revenues that will be generated from the increased bio-science and bio-manufacturing businesses that will be attracted to California by the success of CIRM.
Progress Report: 
  • In Year 02 of this grant, we have continued to refine the techniques developed for producing nerve cells from human embryonic stem cells (hESC). Central to our grant proposal is the expression of an active form of a protein called MEF2C, which we insert into the stem cells at a young age. MEF2C is a transcription factor, which is a molecule that regulates how RNA is converted to a protein. MEF2C regulates the production of proteins that are specifically found in neurons, and it plays an important role in making a stem cell into a nerve cell. Specific improvements this year in culture conditions have resulted in our being able to direct a much higher percentage of hESCs into precursors of nerve cells, and it is at this stage that the cells are most appropriate for insertion of MEF2C. Following this, we can transplant the stem cells, destined to become nerve cells, in to the brain in rodent models of stroke and Parkinson’s disease. We have also made very good progress in producing dopaminergic nerve cells, the specific type of cell that dies in Parkinson’s disease. In addition, our improved methods are completely free of any animal products, so they represent a step forward in developing cells as a treatment for human diseases.
  • Building upon these advances in our techniques, we have transplanted cells into a rat model of Parkinson’s disease and shown that a large percentage of the cells become dopaminergic nerve cells in the brain. Additionally, rats receiving these cell transplants show greater improvements in motor skills compared to rats receiving similar cells without the inserted MEF2C factor. These findings complement our results presented in the first year’s progress report showing that transplantation of these MEF2C-expressing cells into a mouse model of stroke resulted in less damage to the brain. Together these results indicate the utility and versatility of these cells “programmed” by expression of the inserted MEF2C gene.
  • Finally, in Year 02 we report on our efforts to discover the mechanism by which the MEF2C gene prevents cell death and drives stem cells to become nerve cells. We have performed microarray analyses, which measure the expression levels of various genes, e.g., how much of each protein is produced from a gene. This approach includes 24,000 of the possible ~30,000 gene sequences expressed in human cells and tissues. These experiments were performed on stem cells with the inserted MEF2C gene just as the cells were making the decision to become a nerve cell. We observed a decrease in the activity of several genes that are known to make stem cells proliferate (divide and multiply), rather than becoming a differentiated nerve cell. This finding is consistent with the known role of MEF2C, which causes cells to stop proliferating and start differentiating into nerve cells. Without insertion of MEF2C into the stem cells, they mostly continue proliferating. We also saw that many genes, which are not expressed in mature nerve cells, were coordinately down regulated. These results may suggest a new role of MEF2C as a factor for shutting down gene expression, thereby helping to promote the formation of new nerve cells. We are continuing our investigations into the mechanism of MEF2C actions in neuronal differentiation and function as well as our transplantation experiments in stroke and Parkinson’s disease models in the coming year.
  • We initially discovered that mouse embryonic stem cell (ESC)-derived neural progenitor cells forced to express the transcription factor MEF2C were protected from dying and were also given signals to differentiate almost exclusively into neurons (J Neurosci 2008; 28:6557-68). Under the CIRM grant, we have investigated the role of MEF2C and consequences of its forced expression in neural differentiation of human ES cells, including identification of specific genes under MEF2C regulation. We have also used rodent models of Parkinson’s disease and stroke to evaluate the therapeutic potential of human ESC-derived neural progenitors forced to express active MEF2C (MEF2CA).
  • In the third year of the CIRM grant, we continued to refine our procedures for differentiating MEF2CA-expressing human ES cells growing in culture into neural progenitor cells (NPC) and fully developed neurons. We also investigated their electrophysiological characteristics and potential to develop into specific types of neurons. We found that not only do the MEF2CA-expressing NPCs become almost exclusively neurons, as we previously showed, but they also had a strong bias to develop into dopaminergic neurons, the type of neuron that dies in Parkinson’s disease. We also found that MEF2CA-expressing NPCs differentiated to maturity in culture dishes showed a wide variety of electrophysiological responses of normal mature neurons. We were able to record sodium currents and action potentials indicating that the neurons were capable of transmitting chemo-electrical signals. They also responded to GABA and NMDA (a glutamate mimic), which shows that the neurons can respond to the major signal-transmitting molecules in the brain.
  • Previously we showed that transplantation of the MEF2CA-expressing human ESC-derived NPCs into the brains of a rat model of Parkinson’s disease resulted in a much higher number of dopaminergic (DA) neurons and positive behavioral recovery compared to controls. We now report that evaluation of the MEF2CA-expressing cells showed a much higher expression level of a variety of proteins known to be important in DA neuron differentiation and that none of these cells become tumors or hyper proliferative. We have also transplanted NPCs into the brains of a rat stroke model. Our preliminary data analysis shows an improvement in the ability to walk a tapered beam in the rats transplanted with MEF2CA-expressing cells compared to controls. These results are evidence there may be a great advantage in the use of NPC expressing MEF2C for transplantation into various brain diseases and injuries.
  • We have also continued our investigations into the mechanisms of MEF2C activities in the hope of finding new drug targets to mimic it effects. We have identified interactive pathways in which MEF2C plays a role and found correlations between MEF2C expression levels and a variety of diseases. These will hopefully lead us to a better understanding of how to leverage our results to produce effective therapies for a broad spectrum of neurological diseases and traumas.
  • Our goals for this grant were to determine the role of the transcription factor MEF2C in neurogenesis, including all of the targets of this factor in the genome, use this knowledge to direct differentiation of human embryonic stem cells (hESC) into specific types of neurons, and investigate the transplantation of these cells into rodent models of Parkinson’s disease (PD) and stroke. During the tenure of this grant, we accomplished these goals to a very significant degree. Our investigations into the role of MEF2C in neurogenesis produced a large body of knowledge pertinent to its essential role in this process. This knowledge base was achieved through both monitoring expression levels of MEF2C during the entire process of neurogenesis and by knocking down its expression by use of siRNA. We now have a very detailed view of the temporal contribution of MEF2C as stem cells differentiate into neurons. Using this knowledge, we optimized a differentiation protocol for directing hESC into neuronal precursor cells and then initiated expression of a constitutively active MEF2 transcription factor (MEF2CA) via lentiviral technology. We discovered that the forced expression of MEF2CA provided a strong bias to neurons to differentiate along a dopaminergic (DA) lineage. Our network analysis for MEF2C confirmed that many of the known effector proteins for DA neurons are indeed targets for this transcription factor. Histological and electrophysiological investigations into the nature of these cells grown in vitro showed that they are indeed functional neurons displaying the anticipated qualities during the various stages of differentiation.
  • Our in vivo transplantation studies have been equally productive. Owing to the strong tendency of the MEF2CA-expressing cells to differentiate into DA neurons, we first investigated their effects on a rat PD model where the dopaminergic cells of the substantia nigra are ablated on one side of the brain by injection of 6-hydroxydopamine. In response to an injection of the dopamine analog apomorphine, these rats will turn in a circle and the readout is the number of turns in a 30 minute period measured on a rotometer. Fewer turns indicate that the rat has less pathology, i.e., is getting better. We transplanted hESC-derived neural progenitor cells (hESC-NPC) either expressing MEF2CA or not and monitored recovery of the rats. While rats receiving both preparations of stem cells showed considerable improvement, the ones receiving MEF2C-expressing cells did significantly better on the rotometer. Also, histologically the MEF2CA-expressing cells could all be seen to differentiate, whereas those that did not express MEF2CA were often found in an undifferentiated state, which potentially posses a problem of continuing proliferation in the brain and tumor formation. Thus, the forced expression of MEF2CA forced the cells to differentiate and prevented uncontrolled cell division. An additional advantage was that the remaining endogenous DA neurons showed much greater density of fibers in the vicinity of the transplanted cells, suggesting that there was an additional benefit of factor secretion. Thus, the MEF2CA genetically modified cells appear to have significant advantages for transplantation for PD.
  • We are also investigating the use of the MEF2CA-expressing hESC-NPC in rat and mouse models of stroke. Preliminary data shows that in both systems we see behavioral improvements following the transplantations with these cells. In the period of the no cost extension, we will complete these studies and characterize the types of neurons these transplanted cells become and their role in reversing the pathology caused by the brain ischemia from stroke. Our hypothesis is that there is a strong bias toward the DA neuron phenotype produced by the expression of MEF2CA, but that this is overridden by the context within the brain. Therefore, in a stroke model, the context of damage to the cortex provides signals to the newly transplanted cells that they should migrate to the damaged area and become cells appropriate to that region, not DA neurons. We will test this hypothesis in the remaining months of the grant.
  • Our goals for this grant were to determine the role of the transcription factor MEF2C in neurogenesis, including all of the targets of this factor in the genome, use this knowledge to direct differentiation of human embryonic stem cells (hESC) into specific types of neurons, and investigate the transplantation of these cells into rodent models of Parkinson’s disease (PD) and stroke. During the tenure of this grant, we accomplished these goals to a very significant degree. Our investigations into the role of MEF2C in neurogenesis produced a large body of knowledge pertinent to its essential role in this process. This knowledge base was achieved through both monitoring expression levels of MEF2C during the entire process of neurogenesis and by knocking down its expression by use of siRNA. We now have a very detailed view of the temporal contribution of MEF2C as stem cells differentiate into neurons. Using this knowledge, we optimized a differentiation protocol for directing hESC into neuronal precursor cells and then initiated expression of a constitutively active MEF2 transcription factor (MEF2CA) via lentiviral technology. We discovered that the forced expression of MEF2CA provided a strong bias to neurons to differentiate along a dopaminergic (DA) lineage. Our network analysis for MEF2C confirmed that many of the known effector proteins for DA neurons are indeed targets for this transcription factor. Histological and electrophysiological investigations into the nature of these cells grown in vitro showed that they are indeed functional neurons displaying the anticipated qualities during the various stages of differentiation.
  • Our in vivo transplantation studies have been equally productive. Owing to the strong tendency of the MEF2CA-expressing cells to differentiate into DA neurons, we first investigated their effects on a rat PD model where the dopaminergic cells of the substantia nigra are ablated on one side of the brain by injection of 6-hydroxydopamine. In response to an injection of the dopamine analog apomorphine, these rats will turn in a circle and the readout is the number of turns in a 30 minute period measured on a rotometer. Fewer turns indicate that the rat has less pathology, i.e., is getting better. We transplanted hESC-derived neural progenitor cells (hESC-NPC) either expressing MEF2CA or not and monitored recovery of the rats. While rats receiving both preparations of stem cells showed considerable improvement, the ones receiving MEF2C-expressing cells did significantly better on the rotometer. Also, histologically the MEF2CA-expressing cells could all be seen to differentiate, whereas those that did not express MEF2CA were often found in an undifferentiated state, which potentially posses a problem of continuing proliferation in the brain and tumor formation. Thus, the forced expression of MEF2CA forced the cells to differentiate and prevented uncontrolled cell division. An additional advantage was that the remaining endogenous DA neurons showed much greater density of fibers in the vicinity of the transplanted cells, suggesting that there was an additional benefit of factor secretion. Thus, the MEF2CA genetically modified cells appear to have significant advantages for transplantation for PD.
  • We are also investigating the use of the MEF2CA-expressing hESC-NPC in rat and mouse models of stroke. Preliminary data shows that in both systems we see behavioral improvements following the transplantations with these cells. In the period of the no cost extension, we will complete these studies and characterize the types of neurons these transplanted cells become and their role in reversing the pathology caused by the brain ischemia from stroke. Our hypothesis is that there is a strong bias toward the DA neuron phenotype produced by the expression of MEF2CA, but that this is overridden by the context within the brain. Therefore, in a stroke model, the context of damage to the cortex provides signals to the newly transplanted cells that they should migrate to the damaged area and become cells appropriate to that region, not DA neurons. We will test this hypothesis in the remaining months of the grant.

Molecular and Cellular Transitions from ES Cells to Mature Functioning Human Neurons

Funding Type: 
Comprehensive Grant
Grant Number: 
RC1-00115
ICOC Funds Committed: 
$2 879 210
Disease Focus: 
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
Neurological Disorders
Parkinson's Disease
Genetic Disorder
Neurological Disorders
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
oldStatus: 
Closed
Public Abstract: 
Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are pluripotent entities, capable of generating a whole-body spectrum of distinct cell types. We have developmental procedures for inducing hESCs to develop into pure populations of human neural stem cells (hNS), a step required for generating authentic mature human neurons. Several protocols have currently been developed to differentiate hESCs to what appear to be differentiated dopaminergic neurons (important in Parkinson’s disease (PD) and cholinergic motor neurons (important in Amyolateral Sclerosis (ALS) in culture dishes. We have developed methods to stably insert new genes in hESC and we have demonstrated that these transgenic cells can become mature neurons in culture dishes. We plan to over express alpha synuclein and other genes associated with PD and superoxide dismutase (a gene mutated in ALS) into hESCs and then differentiate these cells to neurons, and more specifically to dopaminergic neurons and cholinergic neurons using existing protocols. These transgenic cells can be used not only for the discovery of cellular and molecular causes for dopaminergic or cholinergic cell damage and death in these devastating diseases, but also can be used as assays to screen chemical libraries to find novels drugs that may protect against the degenerative process. Until recently the investigation of the differentiation of these human cells has only been observed in culture dishes or during tumor formation. Our recent results show that hESC implanted in the brains of mice can survive and become active functional human neurons that successfully integrate into the adult mouse forebrain. This method of transplantation to generate models of human disease will permit the study of human neural development in a living environment, paving the way for the generation of new models of human neurodegenerative and psychiatric diseases. It also has the potential to speed up the screening process for therapeutic drugs.
Statement of Benefit to California: 
We plan to develop procedures to induce human ES cells into mature functioning neurons that carry genes that cause the debilitating human neurological diseases, Parkinson’s disease and Amyolateral Sclerosis (ALS). We will use the cells to reveal the genes and molecular pathways inside the cells that are responsible for how the mutant genes cause damage to specific types of brain cells. We also will make the cells available to other researchers as well as biotech companies so that other investigators can use these cells to screen small molecule and chemical libraries to discover new drugs that can interfere with the pathology caused by these mutant cells that mimic human disease, in hopes of accelerating the pace of discovery.
Progress Report: 
  • Our research is focused on studying two debilitating diseases of the nervous system: Parkinson’s disease (PD) and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. While the causes and symptoms of these two conditions are very different, they share one aspect in common: patients gradually lose specific types of nerve cells, namely the so-called dopaminergic neurons in PD, and motor neurons in ALS. If we can find ways to protect the neurons from dying, we might be able to slow or even halt disease progression in ALS and PD patients. In the past two years, our lab has developed robust procedures to generate these two classes of neurons from human embryonic stem cells and we have been studying the molecular changes that govern their specialization. Since last year, we have been using neurons to elucidate the molecular mechanisms that underlie the demise of these cells.
  • ALS is one of the most common neuromuscular diseases, afflicting more than 30,000 Americans. Patients rapidly lose their motor neurons – the nerve cells that extend from the brain through the spinal cord to the muscles, thereby controlling their movement. Therapy options are extremely limited and people with ALS usually succumb to respiratory failure or pneumonia within three to five years from the onset of symptoms. Most ALS patients have no family history of ALS and carry no known genetic defects that may help explain why they develop the disease. However, a small number of ALS patients have mutations in the superoxide dismutase 1 (SOD1) gene, which encodes an enzyme that scavenges so-called free radicals – aggressive oxidizing molecules that are by-products of the cells’ normal metabolism. Researchers therefore believe that accumulation of these free radicals may damage motor neurons in ALS and contribute to their death.
  • To test this idea, we introduced the mutated form of the SOD1 gene into astrocytes – cells that provide metabolic and structural support to neurons – and cultured our stem cell-derived motor neurons along with these SOD1-mutant astrocytes. Indeed, while motor neurons grown on ‘normal’ astrocytes were fully viable, we saw widespread death of motor neurons in cocultures with ‘mutant’ astrocytes, along with elevated levels of free radicals. We think that this is due to our mutant astrocytes being causing inflammation, and so our future efforts are focused on understanding the role of the immune system, specifically the function of microglia – the resident immune cells of the brain and spinal cord – in our co-cultures with human motor neurons. We are very excited about these results because they show that our cocultures may be a very useful tool to screen drugs that may counteract the neurotoxicity caused by inflammation and free radicals. We have already begun testing several known antioxidants, and found some of them to be very effective in improving motor neuron survival in the culture dish. Such compounds may ultimately improve the condition of ALS patients.
  • PD is the second most common neurodegenerative disease and develops when neurons in the brain, and in particular, in a part of the brain known as the substantia nigra die. These neurons are called dopaminergic because they produce dopamine, a molecule that is necessary for coordinated body movement. Many dopaminergic neurons are already lost when patients develop PD symptoms, which include trembling, stiffness, and slow movement. Around one million Americans are currently suffering from PD, and 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. While several surgical and pharmacological treatment options exist, they cannot slow or halt disease progression and are instead aimed at treating the symptoms. The exact causes for neuron death in PD are unknown but among others inflammation in the affected brain area may play a role in disease progression.
  • In a joint effort with the laboratories of Christopher Glass and Michael Rosenfeld at the University of California, San Diego, we showed using animal experiments that a protein called Nurr1 is crucial for the development and survival of dopaminergic neurons. We found that the Nurr1 gene is turned on by inflammatory signals and suppresses genes that encode neurotoxic factors. Microglia are the major initiators of the neurotoxic response to inflammatory stimuli, which is then amplified by astrocytes. Thus our findings reveal an important role for Nurr1 in microglia and astrocytes to protect dopaminergic neurons from exaggerated production of inflammation-induced neurotoxic mediators. We are now using human embryonic stem cell-derived dopaminergic neurons, cultured along with human atrocytes and microglia to test whether we can demonstrate this positive role of Nurr1 in a culture dish as well.
  • We are investigating the molecular mechanisms underlying two major neurological diseases: Parkinson’s disease (PD) and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In the past year, we have taken our previously developed human embryonic stem cell (hESC)-based cell culture model for PD and ALS another step further: we have begun building an assay system that may eventually allow both the identification of biomarkers for early diagnosis and the screening of drug candidates for ALS and PD. By transplanting hESC-derived neurons into live animals and brain slices, we have also made first inroads into recapitulating the disease processes in animal model systems.
  • While the causes and symptoms of ALS and PD are very different, they share one aspect in common: in both, patients gradually lose specific types of nerve cells, namely, the so-called dopaminergic neurons in PD, and motor neurons in ALS; it this neuron death that causes both diseases. Previously, we showed with our hESC-based cell culture system that an inflammatory response in astrocytes (the brain cells that provide metabolic and structural support to neurons) is involved in loss of motor neurons. Similarly, we demonstrated that microglia (the brain’s immune cells) and astrocytes together protect dopaminergic neurons from exaggerated production of inflammation-induced neurotoxic mediators. This function of astrocytes and microglia was dependent on a protein called Nurr1: we found that the Nurr1 gene is turned on by inflammatory signals and suppresses genes that encode neurotoxic factors.
  • We have now begun to characterize in depth the specific signaling molecules that communicate the inflammation cue from the glial cells to neurons. To do this, we cultured astrocytes and microglia in the petri dish, induced inflammation and collected cell culture supernatants from the ‘inflamed’ and normal cells. We then measured the levels of specific so-called cytokines, the inflammatory signaling molecules secreted by the glial cells. Once we have obtained a characteristic cytokine ‘signature’ of disease-associated glial cells, we can begin to unravel the molecular pathways that lead to inflammation. Thus our research may lead to the discovery of early diagnostic markers and enable drug screening for compounds that suppress or prevent these neurotoxic inflammatory processes.
  • Our cell culture assays have provided a great deal of insight into the signaling cascades that eventually lead to neuron death. However, they probably cannot fully recapitulate the complex interplay between the neurons and the cellular environment in which they reside within the brain. We have therefore begun to transplant hESC-derived neurons into the brains of mice. Our results indicate that the neurons rapidly extended processes and developed dendritic branches and axons that integrated into the existing neuronal network. In the coming year, we plan to build on these results, using our hESC-derived neuronal models of PD and ALS to better understand mechanisms of dysregulation. Specifically, we will examine alterations in synapse formation, cell survival, and neuron maturation. We will also devise strategies for functional recovery and rescue in the context of the living animal.
  • We are investigating the molecular mechanisms underlying two major neurological diseases: Parkinson’s disease (PD) and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In the past year, we took our human embryonic stem cell (hESC)-based neural cell culture model for PD and ALS another step further and built sensitive and quantitative assays that can allow for the screening of drug candidates for ALS and PD. We have also consistently improved our transplanting techniques and are now able to detect functional, electrophysiologically active, hESC-derived neurons in live animals. This experiment was crucial to show that, under our culture conditions, human neurons derived from embryonic stem cells were able to integrate and form meaningful connections with other neurons in a given adult brain environment.
  • Moreover, we are now performing an in-depth characterization of the specific signaling molecules that communicate the inflammation cues from the glial cells to neurons in the presence of ALS-causing mutations (SOD1G37R) and PD-causing mutations (recombinant alfa-synuclein). In this report we have explored another functional assay to measure glial function and inflammatory response using astrocytes that express ALS-causing mutations. In addition, we report here that adding PD-causing mutagens to mixed cultures of human neurons and astrocytes results in the death of dopaminergic neurons, the type of neurons affected in PD. We are currently testing new compounds that can decrease the neuronal toxicity observed.
  • Our research may not only lead to the discovery of early diagnostic markers but also enable drug screening for compounds that suppress or prevent these neurotoxic inflammatory processes.

Epigenetic gene regulation during the differentiation of human embryonic stem cells: Impact on neural repair

Funding Type: 
Comprehensive Grant
Grant Number: 
RC1-00111
ICOC Funds Committed: 
$2 516 613
Disease Focus: 
Stroke
Neurological Disorders
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
iPS Cell
Cell Line Generation: 
iPS Cell
oldStatus: 
Closed
Public Abstract: 
Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) have the potential to become all sorts of cells in human body including nerve cells. Moreover, hESCs can be expanded in culture plates into a large quantity, thus serving as an ideal source for cell transplantation in clinical use. However, the existing hESC lines are not fully characterized in terms of their potential to become specific cell types such as nerve cells. It is also unclear if the nerve cells that are derived from hESCs are totally normal when tested in cell transplantation experiments. One of the goals for our proposal is to compare the quality and the potential of eight lines of hESCs in their capacity to become nerve cells. To measure if the nerve cells that are derived from hESCs are normal when compared to the nerve cells in normal human beings, we will examine the levels of gene expression and the mechanisms that control gene expression in hESC-derived nerve cells. Specifically, we will examine the pattern of DNA modification, namely DNA methylation, in the DNA of nerve cells. This DNA modification is involved in the inhibition of gene expression. It is known that if DNA methylation pattern is abnormal, it can lead to human diseases including cancer and mental retardation disorders. We will use a DNA microarray technology to identify DNA methylation pattern in the critical regions where gene expression is controlled. Our recent results suggest that increased DNA methylation is observed in hESC-derived nerve cells. In this proposal, we will also test if we can balance the level of DNA methylation through pharmacological treatment of enzymes that are responsible for DNA methylation. Finally, we will test if hESC-derived nerve cells can repair the brain after injury . A mouse stroke model will be used for testing the mechanisms stem cell-mediated repair and recovery in the injured brain and for selecting the best nerve cells for cell transplantation. Our study will pave the way for the future use of hESC-derived nerve cells in clinical treatment of nerve injury and neurodegenerative diseases such as stroke and Parkinson’s disease.
Statement of Benefit to California: 
Neurodegenerative diseases such as stroke are the leading cause of adult disability. Stroke produces an area of damage in the brain which frequently causes the loss of crucial brain functions such as sensory and movement control, language skills, and cognition capability. Stem cell transplantation has emerged as a method that may improve recovery in these brain areas. Studies of stem cell transplantation after stroke have been limited because many of the transplanted cells do not survive, the appropriate regions for transplantation have not been identified, and the mechanisms by which transplanted stem cells improve recovery have not been determined. Also, there have been no studies of human embryonic stem cell transplantation after stroke. For the use of stem cell therapy in stroke patients, human embryonic stem cell lines have to be grown and tested for their efficacy in repairing the brain after stroke. We have recently found that the process of growing human embryonic stem cells in culture introduces genetic modifications in some of these cell lines that may decrease survival of the cells in the brain and impair their ability to repair the injured brain. The experiments in this grant will determine which human embryonic stem cell lines do not undergo this negative genetic modification. The optimum human embryonic stem cell lines will then be systematically tested for the location in the stroke brain that produces survival and integration, and the mechanisms of repair that these cells mediate in the brain after stroke. These studies will specifically test the role of human embryonic stem cells in improving sensory and movement functions after stroke. In summary, these studies will establish protocols for the proper growth of human embryonic stem cell lines, the lines that are most effective for repairing the brain after stroke, and the principles behind how human embryonic stem cells repair the brain. These results are applicable to other kinds of neurodegenerative conditions, such as Parkinsons, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases, and to the growth and culture of human embryonic stem cells in general for repair of disease of other human tissues.
Progress Report: 
  • Summary of Research Progress:
  • Our research aims to identify the optimal culture conditions and the best hESC lines for the derivation of nerve lineage cells in therapeutic cell transplantation. Toward this goal, we propose to compare the behavior of nerve cell differentiation in multiple lines of hESCs in one laboratory setting. We will further characterize molecular changes during directed cell differentiation and identify the cells that exhibit a pattern of DNA modification, namely DNA methylation, similar to primary neural cells in human brain. In the case of DNA hypermethylation, pharmacological treatment and genetic manipulation will be applied to correct the methylation defects by blocking enzymes involved in DNA methylation. Finally, cell transplantation in a mouse stroke model will be used to study the mechanisms and efficacy of different types of hESC-derived neural cells in neural repair.
  • In the past year, we have made progress in guiding several lines of human stem cells into nerve cells. We are now ready to compare the property of different lines of nerve cells such as the efficiency of nerve cell differentiation and the preferential production of specific nerve cells in culture. We also begin to produce and characterize a new type of human stem cells, namely induced pluripotent cells that are obtained by converting somatic cells into stem cell through reprogramming. We also test the pattern of DNA methylation in different lines of human stem cells. By engineering stem cells carrying different levels of methylation, we aim to find the optimal levels of DNA methylation for efficient nerve cell differentiation. Finally, we also made excellent progress on the procedure of cell transplantation. We have found a suitable substrate that can be used to enhance neuronal survival after cell transplantation and we expect to publish a research paper in this new method of cell transplantation.
  • Summary of Research Progress:
  • Our research aims to identify the optimal culture conditions and the best hESC lines for the derivation of nerve lineage cells in therapeutic cell transplantation. Toward this goal, we propose to compare the behavior of nerve cell differentiation in multiple lines of hESCs in one laboratory setting. We will further characterize molecular changes during directed cell differentiation and identify the cells that exhibit a pattern of DNA modification, namely DNA methylation, similar to primary neural cells in human brain. In the case of DNA hypermethylation, pharmacological treatment and genetic manipulation will be applied to correct the methylation defects by blocking enzymes involved in DNA methylation. Finally, cell transplantation in a mouse stroke model will be used to study the mechanisms and efficacy of different types of hESC-derived neural cells in neural repair.
  • In the past year, we have made great progress in converting several lines of human stem cells into nerve cells. We have compared the property of different lines of nerve cells such as the efficiency of nerve cell differentiation and the preferential production of specific nerve cells in culture. We also begin to produce and characterize a new type of human stem cells, namely induced pluripotent cells that are obtained by converting somatic cells into stem cell through reprogramming. We also test the pattern of DNA methylation in different lines of human stem cells. By engineering stem cells carrying different levels of methylation, we aim to find the optimal levels of DNA methylation for efficient nerve cell differentiation. Finally, we also made excellent progress on the procedure of cell transplantation. We have found a suitable substrate that can be used to enhance neuronal survival after cell transplantation and we expect to publish a research paper in this new method of cell transplantation.
  • Our research aims to identify the optimal culture conditions and the best hESC lines for the derivation of nerve lineage cells in therapeutic cell transplantation. Toward this goal, we propose to compare the behavior of nerve cell differentiation in multiple lines of hESCs in one laboratory setting. We will further characterize molecular changes during directed cell differentiation and identify the cells that exhibit a pattern of DNA modification, namely DNA methylation, similar to primary neural cells in human brain. In the case of DNA hypermethylation, pharmacological treatment and genetic manipulation will be applied to correct the methylation defects by blocking enzymes involved in DNA methylation. Finally, cell transplantation in a mouse stroke model will be used to study the mechanisms and efficacy of different types of hESC-derived neural cells in neural repair.
  • In the past year, we have made great progress in converting several lines of human stem cells into nerve cells. We have compared the property of different lines of nerve cells such as the efficiency of nerve cell differentiation and the preferential production of specific nerve cells in culture. We also succeeded in making a new type of human stem cells, namely induced pluripotent cells that are obtained by converting somatic cells into stem cell through reprogramming. We have tested the pattern of DNA methylation in different lines of human stem cells, including mutant cell lines from patients who exhibit defects in DNA methylaiton. Finally, we also made excellent progress on the procedure of cell transplantation and we characterized gene expression and epigenetic changes in transplanted nerve cells from human embryonic stem cells. Our studies allow us to optimize methods of neural cell differentiation and transplantation. We plan to publish additional two research papers in the near future.

MicroRNAs in Human Stem Cell Differentiation and Mental Disorders

Funding Type: 
SEED Grant
Grant Number: 
RS1-00462
ICOC Funds Committed: 
$791 000
Disease Focus: 
Autism
Neurological Disorders
Developmental Disorders
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
oldStatus: 
Closed
Public Abstract: 
Many mental disorders are closely associated with problems that occur during brain development in early life. For instance, by 2 years of age, autistic children have larger brains than normal kids, likely due to, at least in part, excess production of neurons and support cells, the building blocks of the nervous system. In autistic brains, how neurons grow various thread-like processes also shows some abnormalities. The cause of autism is complex and likely involves many genetic factors. These developmental defects are also associated with mental disorders caused by single-gene mutations, such as Rett syndrome and fragile X syndrome, the most common form of inherited mental retardation, whose clinical features overlap with autism. However, what causes the developmental defects in brains of children with different mental disorders is largely unknown. In recent years, an exciting new regulatory pathway was discovered that may well contribute to the etiology of mental disorders. The major player in this novel pathway is a class of tiny molecules 21
Statement of Benefit to California: 
California is the most populated state in the US and has a large number of patients suffering from various mental disorders. The proposed studies in this grant application will contribute to the mission of developing novel avenues through stem cell research for the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of mental disorders
Progress Report: 
  • Human stem cells, both embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells, offer exciting opportunities for cell-based therapies in injured or diseased human brains or spinal cords. The clinical efficacy of grafted progenitor cells critically depends on their ability to migrate to the appropriate sites in the adult central nervous system without unwanted proliferation and tumor formation. However, little is known about the cellular behavior of human neural progenitor cells derived from human stem cells or how their proliferation and migration are coordinated. During this reporting period, we continued to study human neural progenitor cells derived from human stem cells, a cell culture system established during the prior reporting period. We focused on microRNAs, a class of small, noncoding RNAs of ~21–23 nucleotides that regulate gene expression at the posttranscriptional level. These small RNAs mostly destabilize target mRNAs or suppress their translation by binding to complementary sequences in the 3' untranslated regions (3'UTRs). Our results obtained during this reporting period indicate that some microRNAs have very interesting functions in human neural progenitors, both in in vitro cell culture system and when transplanted into mouse brains. These new findings may have important implications for stem cell based therapies for neurodegenerative diseases or brain/spinal cord injuries.

Human Embryonic Stem Cells and Remyelination in a Viral Model of Demyelination

Funding Type: 
SEED Grant
Grant Number: 
RS1-00409
ICOC Funds Committed: 
$425 594
Disease Focus: 
Multiple Sclerosis
Neurological Disorders
Immune Disease
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
oldStatus: 
Closed
Public Abstract: 
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is the most common neurologic disease affecting young adults under the age of 40 with the majority of MS patients diagnosed in the second or third decade of life. MS is characterized by the gradual loss of the myelin sheath that surrounds and insulates axons that allow for the conduction of nerve impulses – a process known as demyelination. For unknown reasons, the ability to remyelinate axons is impaired in MS patients making recovery of motor skills difficult. Therefore, developing novel and effective approaches to remyelinate axons in MS patients would dramatically improve the quality of life of many MS patients. The experiments described in this research proposal utilize a well-accepted model of MS to further characterize the potential clinical applicability of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) to remyelinate axons. Such knowledge is crucial in order to increase our understanding of stem cells with regards to treatment of numerous human diseases including MS.
Statement of Benefit to California: 
California is the most populated state in the USA. As such, the costs of medical care for the treatment of patients with chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) represents a significant and growing problem. MS is the most common neurologic disease affecting young adults under the age of 40 with the majority of MS patients diagnosed in the second or third decade of life. Given the population of California, there are many MS patients living in the state and the numbers will undoubtedly grow. It is unusual for MS patients to die from the disease and many will live normal life spans but will develop an increasing array of medical problems stemming from the progression of neurologic damage associated with MS. MS is characterized by the gradual loss of the myelin sheath that surrounds and insulates axons that allow for the conduction of nerve impulses – a process known as demyelination. For unknown reasons, the ability to remyelinate axons is impaired in MS patients making recovery of motor skills difficult. Therefore, developing novel and effective approaches to remyelinate axons in MS patients would dramatically alleviate some of the burden placed on the medical community by improving the quality of life of many MS patients. The experiments described in this research proposal utilize a well-accepted model of MS to further characterize the potential clinical applicability of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) to remyelinate axons. Such knowledge is crucial in order to increase our understanding of stem cells with regards to treatment of human diseases with the ultimate goal of limiting patient suffering and reducing medical costs.
Progress Report: 
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system (CNS) that results in demyelination and axonal loss, culminating in extensive disability through defects in neurologic function. The demyelination that defines MS pathology is progressive over time; however, studies indicate that myelin repair can occur during the course of disease in patients with MS and in animal models designed to mimic the immunopathogenesis of MS. While it is generally thought that endogenous oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) are largely responsible for spontaneous remyelination, it is unclear why these cells are only able to transiently induce myelin repair in the presence of ongoing disease. Along these lines, two therapies for demyelinating diseases look promising; implanting OPCs into sites of neuroinflammation that are directly capable of inducing remyelination of the damaged axons and/or modifying the local environment to stimulate and support remyelination by endogenous OPCs. Indeed, we have shown that human embryonic stem cell (hESC)-derived oligodendrocytes surgically implanted into the spinal cords of mice with virally induced demyelination promoted focal remyelination and axonal sparing. We are currently investigating how the implanted OPCs positionally migrate to areas of on-going demyelination and the role these cells play in repairing the damaged CNS. The purpose of this research is to identify the underlying mechanism(s) responsible for hESC-induced remyelination.
  • Oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs) are important in mediating remyelination in response to demyelinating lesions. As such, OPCs represent an attractive cell population for use in cell replacement therapies to promote remyelination for treatment of human demyelinating diseases. High-purity OPCs have been generated from hESC and have been shown to initiate remyelination associated with improved motor skills in animal models of demyelination. We have previously determined that engraftment of hESC-derived OPCs into mice with established demyelination does not significantly improve clinical recovery nor reduce the severity of demyelination. Importantly, remyelination is limited following OPC transplantation. These findings highlight that the microenvironment is critical with regards to the remyelination potential of engrafted cells. In addition, we have determined that human OPCs are capable of migrating in response to proinflammatory molecules often associated with human neuroinflammatory diseases such as multiple sclerosis. This is an important observation in that it will likely be necessary for engrafted OPCs to be able to positionally navigate within tissue in order to move from the site of surgical transplantation to areas of damage to initiate repair and tissue remodeling. Finally, we have also made a novel discovery of a unique signaling pathway that protects OPCs from damage/death in response to treatment with proinflammatory cytokines. We believe this is an important and translationally relevant observation as OPCs are critical in contributing to remyelination and remyelination failure is an important clinical feature for many human demyelinating diseases inclusing spinal cord injury and MS. We have identified a putative protective ligand/receptor interaction affords protection from cytokine-induced apoptosis. These findings may reveal novel avenues for therapeutic intervention to prevent damage/death of OPCs and enhance remyelination.

The Immunological Niche: Effect of immunosuppressant drugs on stem cell proliferation, gene expression, and differentiation in a model of spinal cord injury.

Funding Type: 
SEED Grant
Grant Number: 
RS1-00377
ICOC Funds Committed: 
$619 223
Disease Focus: 
Spinal Cord Injury
Neurological Disorders
Stem Cell Use: 
Adult Stem Cell
Embryonic Stem Cell
oldStatus: 
Closed
Public Abstract: 
Our understanding of the effect of immunosuppressive agents on stem cell proliferation and differentiation in the central nervous system is limited. Indeed, even the necessity for long-term immunosuppression to promote the survival of stem cells grafted into the “immunoprivileged” central nervous system (CNS) is unknown. Grafting multipotent stem cells into the injured CNS often results in a failure of the cells to survive. If the cells survive, often they differentiate into astrocytes, a cell-type not considered beneficial. We recently grafted human stem cells (hCNS-SC) into spinal injured mice and observed behavioral improvements coupled with differentiation of these human cells into neurons and oligodendrocytes. We also observed mouse-human synapse formation and remyelination. The mice we used lacked a functional immune system, enabling us to grafting human cells into the mice without the use of immunosuppressants. When these same cells were grafted into spinal injured rats with a normal immune system, we had to immunosuppress the animals. Exposure of these human stem cells to immunosuppressive drugs resulted poor cell survival. The cells that did survive predominantly differentiated into astrocytes. Did the immunosuppressive drugs we used alter the ability of the human stem cells to differentiate into useful cells? All cell-based therapeutic approaches are dependent upon either immunosuppression in an otherwise normal animal or testing for proof of principal in an immunodeficient animal model. This has quite significant implications for animal experiments or human trials, where continuous immunosuppression is required to obtain successful graft survival. No one knows if there are direct effects of immunosuppressant drugs on neural stem cells. Stem cells may also respond differently to immunosuppression depending on their “ontogenetic” age (embryonic vs. fetal vs. adult). There is a common perception that “young” ES cells will have greater potential than “older” stem cells. Stem cells isolated at different ontogenetic stages might respond differently to immunosuppression. We predict that the immunosuppressive drugs will exert direct effects on stem cell proliferation, gene expression, and fate determination, both in cell culture and when grafted into animals with spinal cord injury. We will also test if “ontogenetic” age alters the responsiveness of stem cells.
Statement of Benefit to California: 
The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) recognizes that the field of stem cell biology is in its infancy. CIRM has requested a broad range of research to fill in key gaps in our understanding of basic stem cell biology and the possible use of these cells as therapeutics. Grants are to be judged on impact (extent the proposed research addresses an important problem; significantly moves the field forward scientifically; moves the research closer to therapy; and changes the thinking or experimental practice in the field), quality (is proposed research planned carefully to give a meaningful result; are possible difficulties are acknowledge; does the timetable allows for achieving significant research) and innovation (to what extent the research approach is original, breaks new ground, and brings novel ideas to bear on an important problem). We believe that the projects proposed here target several of the areas CIRM cites as beneficial to the State of California. This proposal addresses the critical area of immunosuppression and stem cell survival in animal transplantation models. Future therapies using human stem cells will have to surmount the possible rejection by the host of cells derived from another source. If traditional immunosuppressive drugs are to be used, we will need to understand whether these drugs have a direct effect on stem cell proliferation and fate determination (or differentiation). Furthermore, these projects will allow for a direct comparison of stem cells from different ontogenetic stages and the ability to improve functional outcome after spinal cord injury. Thus we may gain insight into whether embryonic derived stem cells are more useful than adult derived stem cells as a therapeutic tool.
Progress Report: 
  • We have shown that fetal human central nervous system derived stem cells (HuCNS-SC) transplanted into a mouse model of spinal cord injury (SCI) improve behavioral recovery. Transplanted human cells differentiated into myelinating oligodendrocytes and synapse forming neurons. These data suggest that efficacy is dependent upon successful cell engraftment and appropriate cell fate. The strain of mice (NOD-scid mice) are immunodeficient, which allows transplanted human cell populations to engraft and promote behavioral recovery in the absence of confounds due to a rejection response and allows us to avoid using immunosuppressant drugs. Clinically, however, it is clear that transplantation of therapeutic human cell populations will require administration of immunosuppressants (IS) such as CsA, FK506, or Rapamycin. These immunosuppressants work by altering signaling pathways which are also present within stem cells. Hence, in addition to promoting engraftment, IS have the potential to affect stem cell proliferation and/or differentiation. In Aim 1A, we tested this hypothesis in a cell culture model and found that HuCNS-SC fate and proliferation were altered by exposure to different IS. CsA and FK506 decreased the number of astrocytes in culture compared to control conditions, while Rapamyin increased the number of astrocytes. All three IS increased the number of ß-tubulin III positive neuron-like cells.
  • In Aim 1B, we tested whether cells of the inflammatory system (neutrophils and macrophages) could also directly influence stem cell proliferation and fate. To test this possibility, we exposed either fetal or embryonic neural stem cells to cell culture media from co-cultures of neutrophils or macrophages. We found that neutrophil-mediated release of inflammatory proteins promotes astrocyte differentiation of fetal derived neural stem cells but not embryonic derived neural stem cells. One way inflammatory cells might be working is via oxidative stress (e.g. hydrogen peroxide). Interestingly, excess hydrogen peroxide promoted more extensive cell death of embryonic derived versus fetal fetal derived neural stem cells, suggesting an intrinsic difference in the vulnerably of these two cell populations to oxidative stress. Conditioned media from neutrophils was found to reduce proliferation in fetal neural stem cells but not embryonic derived neural stem cells. In addition, we found neutrophil conditioned media promotes human fetal NSC astrocytic fate and migration towards sites of injury epicenter in an animal model of spinal cord injury; followup cell culture experiments enabled us to determine that neutrophil synthesized complement proteins were having a direct effect on stem cell fate and migration, resulting in a patent filing. These data demonstrate that fetal NSCs and ES-NSCs are very different by nature and nurture.
  • In Aim 2, we evaluated the hypothesis that IS could alter stem cell proliferation and/or fate in vivo, independent of rejection from the recipient’s immune system. HuCNS-SC were transplanted into NOD-scid mice, which have no immune system and hence cannot mount an immune response to the foreign cells. These animals received different immunosuppressants (CsA, FK506, Rapamycin, or vehicle) daily after transplantation until sacrifice 13 weeks later to determine if the total number of surviving human cells, or the end cell fate of the transplanted cells would be altered due to exposure to IS drugs compared to the vehicle control group. Behavioral recovery was assessed via open-field walking assessment, horizontal ladder beam testing, and video based “CatWalk” gait analysis. IS administration did not affect behavioral recovery by any of these measures compared to HuCNS-SC transplanted animals that received vehicle as an IS. Spinal cords were dissected, sectioned, and immunostained using human-specific markers in conjunction with cell lineage/fate and proliferation markers. Cell engraftment, proliferation, and fate were quantified using unbiased methods. The average number of engrafted human cells in uninjured animals was 319,700 vs 214,900 in vehicle treated injured controls. Human cell engraftment in any IS group was not significantly different than vehicle injured controls. Interestingly, 67% of human cells differentiated into Olig2+ oligodendrocyte-like cells in the uninjured controls, while 45% were Olig2 positive in vehicle treated injured controls. IS treatment did not alter Olig2 cell numbers in injured animals. 9% of human cells differentiated into GFAP positive astrocyte-like cells in the uninjured controls, compared with 9% in vehicle treated injured controls. IS treatment did not alter GFAP cell numbers in injured animals. Quantification of proliferation and other lineage markers is ongoing. The important finding thus far is that when administered to whole animals with a human stem cell transplant, a range of immunosuppressant drugs does not appear to significantly alter stem cell fate.

Genetic manipulation of human embryonic stem cells and its application in studying CNS development and repair

Funding Type: 
SEED Grant
Grant Number: 
RS1-00333
ICOC Funds Committed: 
$642 361
Disease Focus: 
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
Neurological Disorders
Spinal Cord Injury
Neurological Disorders
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
oldStatus: 
Closed
Public Abstract: 
The advent of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) has offered enormous potential for regenerative medicine and for basic understanding of human biology. On the one hand, hESCs can be turned into many different cell types in culture dish, and specific cell types derived from hESCs offer an almost infinite source for cellular replacement therapies. This is the primary reason for which hESCs have received much attention from the general public. On the other hand, scientists can study the properties of hESCs and their derivatives, and determine the effect of genes and molecules on such properties either in culture dish or with transplantation studies in live animals. This second aspect of hESC research would not only significantly enhance our understanding of the function of human genes, but will greatly augment our ability to apply hESCs in transplantation therapies and regenerative medicine. To attain the full potential of hESCs, genetic manipulation of hESCs is essential. In this proposal, we will establish the methods to genetically manipulate an increasingly used, non-federally approved hESC line, the HUES-9, and assess the feasibility to use genetically modified HUES-9 cells in cell transplantation studies to assess the integration of hESCs into the mouse central nervous system. We propose to achieve both homologous recombination (i.e. gene targeting) and transgene expression (with bacterial artificial chromosome), which have complementary utilities in assaying gene function in addition to the opportunity to label hESCs or their derivatives with fluorescent markers. Specifically, with genetic engineering of hESCs we will be able to 1) label hESCs and specific cell types derived from hESCs so that they can be readily followed in culture dish and in animals that have received cellular transplants; 2) disturb an endogenous gene or add more copies of a gene so that the effect of a gene of interest can be assessed (for this purpose, a gene involved in the development of a major motor tract, the corticospinal tract, will be studied). We will then transplant genetically engineered hESCs and their derivatives into the embryonic and adult mouse CNS to assess how well these cells integrate into the mouse CNS, and whether such transplanted animals can serve as valid models to study the effect of genes on hESC function in live animals. In transplantation studies involving adult mouse recipients, injured mouse CNS will be used in addition to intact CNS in order to evaluate the potential of hESCs to integrate into injured CNS, which has direct implications on the therapeutic potential of these cells. In summary, our proposal will establish the methods and tools to genetically manipulate HUES-9 cells, explore a paradigm to study human genes and cells in a context of neural development and cellular therapies, and will pave the way for future studies of genes and pathways in basic biology and regenerative medicine with hESCs.
Statement of Benefit to California: 
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 $400,000,000 annually for the state of California. Research is the only solution as currently there are no cures for spinal cord injury. My lab studies the underlying mechanisms for axon regeneration failure after spinal cord injury using mouse genetics and animal models of spinal cord injury. The current proposal aims to genetically manipulate human embryonic stem cells, study their potential to integrate into immature and mature central nervous system and analyze the effect of genes on such integration. Achieving genetic modification of hESCs will expedite studies with hESCs to cure a variety of human diseases and injuries including spinal cord injury. Our studies will pave the way for discoveries that might lead to novel treatment strategies for spinal cord injury and other neurological conditions. Effective treatments promoting functional repair will significantly increase personal independence for people with spinal cord injury, increase earning capacity and financial independence, and thus 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 injuries.
Progress Report: 
  • A main goal of research in our laboratory is to identify strategies to promote neural repair in spinal cord injury and related neurological conditions. On the one hand, we have been using mouse models of spinal cord injury to study a long-standing puzzle in the field, namely, why axons, the fibers that connect nerve cells, do not regenerate after injury to the brain and the spinal cord. On the other hand, relevant to this CIRM SEED grant, we have started to explore the developmental and therapeutic potential of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) for neural repair. We do this by first developing a method to genetically manipulate a HUES line of hESCs. The advent of hESCs has offered enormous potential for regenerative medicine and for basic understanding of human biology. To attain the full potential of hESCs as a tool both for therapeutic development and for basic research, we need to greatly enhance and expand our ability to genetically manipulate hESCs. A major goal for our SEED grant-sponsored research is to establish methods to genetically manipulate the HUES series of hESC lines, which are gaining wide utility in the research community due to the advantages on their growth characteristics over previously developed hESC lines. The first gene that we targeted in HUES cells, Fezf2, is critical for the development of the corticospinal tract, which plays important roles in fine motor control in humans and hence represents an important target for recovery and repair after spinal cord injury. By introducing a fluorescent reporter to the Fezf2 locus, we are now able to monitor the differentiation of hESCs into Fezf2-expressing neuronal lineages. This work has been published. A second goal is to start to explore the developmental and therapeutic potential of these cells and cells that derived from these cells in the brain and spinal cord. We are currently utilizing the cell line genetically engineered above to develop an efficient method to differentiate HUES cells into subcerebral neurons. Results so far have been encouraging. Efforts are also underway to overexpress Fezf2 as a complementary approach to drive the differentiation of HUES cells into specific neuronal types. Together, these studies will lay down the foundation for therapeutic development with HUES cells and their more differentiated derivatives for neurological disorders including spinal cord injury where neural regeneration can be beneficial. The CIRM SEED grant has allowed us to pursue a new, exciting path of research that we would have not pursued had we not been awarded the grant. Furthermore, the CIRM funded research has opened a new window of opportunity for us to explore genetic engineering of hESCs to model human neurological conditions in future.

Modeling Parkinson's Disease Using Human Embryonic Stem Cells

Funding Type: 
SEED Grant
Grant Number: 
RS1-00331
ICOC Funds Committed: 
$758 999
Disease Focus: 
Parkinson's Disease
Neurological Disorders
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
Cell Line Generation: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
oldStatus: 
Closed
Public Abstract: 
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is the most frequent neurodegenerative movement disorder caused by damage of dopamine-producing nerve cells (DA neuron) in patient brain. The main symptoms of PD are age-dependent tremors (shakiness). There is no cure for PD despite administration of levodopa can help to control symptoms. Most of PD cases are sporadic in the general population. However, about 10-15% of PD cases show familial history. Genetic studies of familial cases resulted in identification of PD-linked gene changes, namely mutations, in six different genes, including α-synuclein, LRRK2, uchL1, parkin, PINK1, and DJ-1. Nevertheless, it is not known how abnormality in these genes cause PD. Our long-term research goal is to understand PD pathogenesis at cellular and molecular levels via studying functions of these PD-linked genes and dysfunction of their disease-associated genetic variants. A proper experimental model plays critical roles in defining pathogenic mechanisms of diseases and for developing therapy. A number of cellular and animal models have been developed for PD research. Nevertheless, a model closely resembling generation processes of human DA nerve cells is not available because human neurons are unable to continuously propagate in culture. Nevertheless, human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) provide an opportunity to fulfill the task. hESCs can grow and be programmed to generate DA nerve cells. In this study, we propose to create a PD model using hESCs. The strategy is to express PD pathogenic mutants of α-synuclein or LRRK2 genes in hESCs. Mutations in α-synuclein or LRRK2 genes cause both familial and sporadic PD. α-Synuclein is a major component of Lewy body, aggregates found in the PD brain. The model will allow us to determine molecular action of PD pathogenic α-synuclein and LRRK2 mutants during generation of human DA neuron and interactions of PD related genes and environmental toxins in DA neurons derived from hESCs. Our working hypothesis is that PD associated genes function in hESCs-derived DA neurons as in human brain DA neurons. Pathogenic mutations in combination with environmental factors (i.e. aging and oxidative stress) impair hESCs-derived DA function resulting in eventual selective neuronal death. In this study, we will firstly generate PD cellular models via expressing two PD-pathogenic genes, α-synuclein and LRRK2 in hESCs. We will next determine effects of α-synuclein and LRRK2 on hESCs and neurons derived from these cells. Finally, we will determine whether PD-causing toxins (i.e. MPP+, paraquat, and rotenone) selectively target to DA neurons derived from hESCs. Successful completion of this study will allow us to study the pathological mechanism of PD and to design strategies to treat the disease.
Statement of Benefit to California: 
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is the second leading neurodegenerative disease with no cure currently available. Compared to other states, California is among one of the states with the highest incidence of this particular disease. First, California growers use approximately 250 million pounds of pesticides annually, about a quarter of all pesticides used in the US (Cal Pesticide use reporting system). A commonly used herbicide, paraquat, has been shown to induce parkinsonism in both animals and human. Other pesticides are also proposed as potential causative agents for PD. Studies have shown increased PD-caused mortality is agricultural pesticide-use counties in comparison to those non-use counties in California. Second, California has the largest Hispanic population. Studies suggest that incidence of PD is the highest among Hispanics (Van Den Eeden et al, American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 157, pages 1015-1022, 2003). Thus, finding effective treatments of PD will significantly benefit citizen in California.
Progress Report: 
  • Parkinson’s disease (PD) is the most frequent neurodegenerative movement disorder caused by damage of dopamine-producing nerve cells (DA neuron) in patient brain. The main symptoms of PD are age-dependent tremors (shakiness). There is no cure for PD despite administration of levodopa can help to control symptoms.

  • Most of PD cases are sporadic in the general population. However, about 10-15% of PD cases show familial history. Genetic studies of familial cases resulted in identification of PD-linked gene changes, namely mutations, in six different genes, including α-synuclein, LRRK2, uchL1, parkin, PINK1, and DJ-1. Nevertheless, it is not known how abnormality in these genes cause PD. Our long-term research goal is to understand PD pathogenesis at cellular and molecular levels via studying functions of these PD-linked genes and dysfunction of their disease-associated genetic variants.

  • A proper experimental model plays critical roles in defining pathogenic mechanisms of diseases and for developing therapy. A number of cellular and animal models have been developed for PD research. Nevertheless, a model closely resembling generation processes of human DA nerve cells is not available because human neurons are unable to continuously propagate in culture. Nevertheless, human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) provide an opportunity to fulfill the task. hESCs can grow and be programmed to generate DA nerve cells. In this study, we propose to create a PD model using hESCs.

  • During the funding period, we have generated a number of human ES cell lines overexpressing α-synuclein and two disease-associated α-synuclein mutants. These cells are being used to determine the cellular and molecular effects of the disease genes on human ES cells and the PD affected dopaminergic neurons made from these cells. We have found that normal and disease α-synucleins have little effect on hESC growth and differentiation. We will continue to investigate roles of this protein in modulating PD affected dopaminergic neurons. Completion of this study will allow us to study the pathological mechanism of PD and to design strategies to treat the disease.

Gene regulatory mechanisms that control spinal neuron differentiation from hES cells.

Funding Type: 
SEED Grant
Grant Number: 
RS1-00288
ICOC Funds Committed: 
$807 749
Disease Focus: 
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
Neurological Disorders
Spinal Muscular Atrophy
Neurological Disorders
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
oldStatus: 
Closed
Public Abstract: 
More than 600 disorders afflict the nervous system. Common disorders such as stroke, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and autism are well-known. Many other neurological disorders are rare, known only to the patients and families affected, their doctors and scientists who look to rare disorders for clues to a general understanding of the brain as well as for treatments for specific diseases. Neurological disorders strike an estimated 50 million Americans each year, exacting an incalculable personal toll and an annual economic cost of hundreds of billions of dollars in medical expenses and lost productivity. There are many potential applications for using human embryonic stem (hES) cells to treat neurological diseases and injuries; however, a critical barrier to progress in the field is the ability to efficiently and reliably control neuronal differentiation from these cells. The main goal of this proposal is to define the gene regulatory mechanisms that control the acquisition of neuronal fate from hES cells. Longer term, we plan to produce small compounds (drugs) that greatly facilitate this process. Drugs that enhance neuron formation are likely to improve scientists’ ability to manipulate hES cells and create in vitro models for studying neurological diseases. Most importantly, drugs of this type may stimulate endogenous stem cells within adults to self-repair damaged areas of the brain. Because so little is known about how hES cells differentiate into neurons at the molecular level, this grant will focus on understanding how a single neuronal subtype is generated – motor neurons. Why motor neurons? Motor neuron diseases are a group of progressive neurological disorders that destroy cells that control essential muscle activity such as speaking, walking, breathing and swallowing. Eventually, the ability to control voluntary movement can be lost. Motor neuron diseases may be inherited or acquired, and they occur in all age groups. In adults, symptoms often appear after age 40. In children, particularly in inherited or familial forms of the disease, symptoms can be present at birth or appear before the child learns to walk. Is there a treatment? There is no cure or standard treatment for motor neuron diseases. Prognosis varies depending on the type of motor neuron disease and the age of onset; however, many types such as ALS and some forms of spinal muscular atrophy are typically fatal.The experiments in this proposal seek to understand mechanisms that will be directly applicable to hES cells and their use for treating motor neuron diseases. Moreover, the mechanisms controlly motor neuron formation are also likely to be relevant to many other neuronal subtypes. Therefore, these studies should provide essential and general insight into medically deploying strategies for converting hES cells into specific neuronal subtypes and thereby serve as a platform for treating a wide range of neurological diseases.
Statement of Benefit to California: 
The long term goal of this research grant proposal is to understand and treat diseases and injuries of the nervous system using hES cells. Neurological disorders such as stroke, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and autism strike an estimated 5 million Californians each year, exacting an incalculable personal toll and an annual economic cost of billions of dollars in medical expenses and lost productivity. Thus, one benefit that will be derived from this area of research is the generation of specific tools and methods for reducing medical costs and increasing the quality of life and level of productivity of afflicted Californians. A second key benefit derived from this research grant proposal is the training of new scientists to serve as educators and researchers for the future, many in the burgeoning area of stem cell biology for which the State of California has emerged as a world’s leader. Finally, the discoveries derived from innovative and multidisciplinary research on hES cells described in this proposal, including the use of chemistry to create drug leads for regulating stem cell differentiation, are likely to lead to important new areas of intellectual property that are essential for creating high quality jobs in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries in California.
Progress Report: 
  • The differentiation of stem cells into clinically-useful cell types is directly dependent on the accurate regulation of gene activation/repression. During the last scientific period we have focused our research on aim 2 of the grant proposal -– to characterize enzymes that are recruited to DNA for the regulation of genes. This effort has employed new DNA sequencing technologies to understand how the lysine specific demethylase (KDM1, LSD1) control gene expression in embryonic stem cells.

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