Derivation of Inhibitory Nerve Cells from Human Embryonic Stem Cells

Funding Type: 
Comprehensive Grant
Grant Number: 
Award Value: 
Disease Focus: 
Parkinson's Disease
Neurological Disorders
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
Public Abstract: 

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is caused by degeneration of a specific population of dopamine-producing nerve cells in the brain and is chronic, progressive, and incurable. Loss of dopamine-containing cells results in profound physiological disturbances producing tremors, rigidity, and severe deterioration of gate and balance. In the United States, approximately 1.5 million people suffer with PD and it is estimated that 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Drugs can modify some of the disease symptoms, but many patients develop disabling drug-induced movements that are unresponsive to medication. Deep brain stimulation can alleviate motor symptoms in some patients but is not a cure. We plan an entirely novel approach to treat PD. We propose to utilize a specific class of inhibitory nerve cells found in the embryonic brain, known as MGE cells, as donor transplant cells to inhibit those brain regions whose activity is abnormally increased in PD. In preliminary studies we have demonstrated that this approach can relieve symptoms in an animal model of PD. To turn this approach into a patient therapy, we will need to develop methods to obtain large numbers of human cells suitable for transplantation. This proposal seeks to address this problem by producing unlimited numbers of exactly the right type of MGE nerve cell using human embryonic stem cells.

The inhibitory nerve cells we seek to produce will reduce brain activity in target regions. They may therefore be used to treat other conditions characterized by excessive brain activity, such as epilepsy. Epilepsy can be a life threatening and disabling condition. Nearly two million Americans suffer with some form of epilepsy. Unfortunately, modulation of brain excitability using antiepileptic drugs can have serious side-effects, especially in the developing brain, and many patients can only be improved by surgically removing areas of the brain containing the seizure focus. Using MGE cells made from human embryonic stem cell lines, we hope to develop a novel epilepsy treatment that could replace the need for surgery or possibly even drug therapy.

We propose an integrated approach that combines the complementary expertise of four UCSF laboratories to achieve our goals. We have already determined that mouse MGE cells can improve the symptoms of PD and epilepsy when grafted into animal models. We now need to develop methods to obtain large numbers of human cells suitable for grafting. We need to ensure that when delivered, the cells will migrate and integrate in the target brain regions, and we need to evaluate therapeutic efficacy in animal models of Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. This proposal addresses these goals. If successful, this accomplishment will set the stage for studies in primates and hasten the day when MGE cells may be used as patient therapy for a wide variety of debilitating neurological disorders.

Statement of Benefit to California: 

This collaborative proposal promises to accelerate progress toward a novel cell based therapeutic agent with potentially widespread benefit for the treatment of a variety of grave neurological disorders. The promise of this work to eventually help our patients is our primary motivation. Additionally, our studies, if successful, could form the basis of a new stem cell technology to produce unlimited numbers of cellular therapeutic products of uniform quality and effectiveness. The production of neurons from stable nerve cell lines derived from human embryonic stem cells is a much-needed biotechnology and a central challenge in embryonic stem (ES) cell biology. Current methods are inefficient at producing neurons that can effectively migrate and integrate into adult brain, and available cell lines generally lack the ability to differentiate into specific neuronal subtypes. Moreover, while many cells resist neuronal differentiation others often take on a glial cell fate. Identification of key factors driving ES cells into a specific neuronal lineage is the primary focus of the current proposal, and if achieved, will generate valuable intellectual property. As such, it may attract biotechnology interest and promote local business growth and development. Moreover, the inhibitory nerve cell type that is the goal of this proposal would be a potentially valuable therapeutic agent. This achievement could attract additional funding from state or industry to begin primate studies and ultimately convert any success into a safe and effective product for the treatment of patients. To produce and distribute stable medicinal-grade cells of a purity and consistency appropriate for therapeutic use will require partnering with industry. Industry participation would be expected to provide economic benefits in terms of job creation and tax revenues. Hopefully, there may ultimately be health benefits for the citizens of California who are suffering from neurological disease.

Progress Report: 

Our goal is to develop a novel cell-based therapy to treat patients with epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and brain injury. The strategy is to use human embryonic stem cells to produce inhibitory nerve cells for transplantation and therapeutic modulation of neural circuits, an approach that may have widespread clinical application. In preliminary studies using inhibitory neuron precursors from embryonic rodent brains, we have demonstrated that this approach can relieve symptoms in animal models of Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. To turn this approach into a patient therapy we need to develop methods to obtain large numbers of human cells suitable for transplantation. The object of this proposal is to develop methods for producing unlimited numbers of exactly the right type of inhibitory nerve cell using human embryonic stem (ES) cells as the starting material.
One strategy to make large numbers of inhibitory neurons would be to convert human ES cells into neural stem (NS) cell lines that could be stably propagated indefinitely, and then to convert the NS cells into inhibitory nerve cells. However, we discovered that NS cell lines do not retain the capacity to generate neurons after extended culture periods but instead produce only glial cells. We have therefore begun to create neurons directly from ES cells, without interrupting the differentiation to amplify cell number at the neural progenitor phase. Using this approach, we have been successful at specifying the right pathway to produce the specific neural progenitor cell we need during the process of differentiation from ES cells. Because there are multiple subytpes of inhibitory neuron, we are testing various cell culture manipulations to enrich for the specific neuron subtype that matches our desired cell type. In addition, we are developing reporter cell lines that will allow us to observe differentiation from ES cell to inhibitory neuron in real time and purify the cells of interest for transplantation. Finally, we are also testing whether artificially expressing key proteins that regulate gene expression and are required for inhibitory neuron production during brain development can more efficiently drive a high percentage of ES cells to differentiate into the desired cell type.
With these tools in place, we hope to begin animal transplantation studies using human ES-derived inhibitory nerve cells within the coming year. If successful, this accomplishment will set the stage for studies in primates, and hasten the day when inhibitory nerve cells may be used as patient therapy for a wide variety of debilitating neurological disorders including Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and brain injury.

This past year, we have made significant strides toward the production of inhibitory nerve cells and precursor (MGE) cells from human embryonic stem (ES) and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These stem cell-derived MGE progenitor cells appropriately mature into inhibitory neurons upon further culture and following transplantation into the newborn mouse brain. Additionally, human ES cell-derived inhibitory neurons possess active membrane properties by electrophysiology analysis. Work is ongoing to determine their functional potential following transplantation: whether these cells can make connections, or synapses, with each other and with neurons in the host brain in order to elevate inhibitory tone in the transplanted animals. Following successful completion of this aim in the coming year, we will be well positioned to examine the therapeutic potential of these cells in pre-clinical epilepsy and Parkinson's disease animal models.

Inhibitory nerve cell deficiencies have been implicated in many neurological disorders including epilepsy. The decreased inhibition and/or increased excitation lead to hyper-excitability and brain imbalance. We are pursuing a strategy to re-balance the brain by injecting inhibitory nerve precursor cells. Most inhibitory nerve cells come from the medial ganglionic eminence (MGE) during fetal development. We have previously documented that mouse MGE transplants reduce seizures in animal models of epilepsy and ameliorate motor symptoms in a rat model of Parkinson’s disease. This project aims to develop human MGE cells from human embryonic stem (ES) cells and to investigate their function in animal models of human disease. In the past year, we have successfully developed a robust and reproducible method to generate human ES cell-derived MGE cells and have performed extensive gene expression and functional analyses. The gene expression profiles of these ES-derived MGE cells resemble those of mouse and human fetal MGE. They appropriately mature into inhibitory nerve cells in culture and following injection into rodent brain. Also, the ES-derived inhibitory cells exhibit active electrical properties and establish connections (synapses) with other nerve cells in culture and in the rodent brain. Thus, we have succeeded in deriving inhibitory human MGE cells from human ES cells and are now transplanting these cells into animal models of disease.