Cellular tools to study brain diseases affecting synaptic transmission

Funding Type: 
Tools and Technologies II
Grant Number: 
Award Value: 
Disease Focus: 
Neurological Disorders
Rett's Syndrome
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
iPS Cell
Cell Line Generation: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
iPS Cell
Public Abstract: 

There is a group of brain diseases that are caused by functional abnormalities. The brains of patients afflicted with these diseases which include autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, depression, and mania and other psychiatric diseases have a normal appearance and show no structural changes. Neurons, the cellular units of the brain, function by making connections (or synapses) with each other and exchanging information in form of electric activity. Thus, it is believed that in those diseases many of these connections are not working properly. However, using current technology, there is no way to investigate individual neuronal synapses in the human brain. This is because it is not ethical to biopsy the brain of a living person if it is not for the direct benefit to the patient. Therefore, scientists cannot study synaptic function in psychiatric diseases. Because of the limited knowledge about the functional consequences in the affected brains, there is no cure for these diseases and the few existing therapies are often associated with severe side effects and cannot restore the normal function of the brain. Therefore, it is of great importance to better study the disease processes. A better knowledge on what the defects are on the cellular level will enable us then in a second step to test existing drugs and measure its effect or screen for new therapeutic drugs that can improve the process and hopefully also the disease symptoms.

This proposal aims to develop a technology to overcome this limitation and ultimately provide neurons directly derived from affected patients. This will uniquely allow the study functional neuronal aspects in the patients' own neurons without the need to extract neurons from the brain. Our proposal has two steps, that we want to undertake in parallel with mouse and human cells. First, we want to find ways to optimally generate neurons from skin fibroblasts. Naturally, these artificial neurons will have to exhibit all functional properties that the neurons from the brain have. This includes their ability to form functional connections with each other that serve to exchange information between two cells. In the second step, we will generate such neuronal cells from a genetic form of a psychiatric disease and evaluate whether these cultured neuronal cells indeed exhibit changes in their functional behavior such as the formation of fewer connections or a decreased probability to activate a connection and thus limit the disease cells to communicate with other cells.

Statement of Benefit to California: 

Our proposed research is to develop a cellular tool which will enable the research community to study human brain diseases that are caused by improperly functioning connections between brain cells rather than structural abnormalities of the brain such as degeneration of neurons or developmental abnormalities. These diseases, which are typically classified as psychiatric diseases, include schizophrenia, bipolar diseases (depression, mania) autism spectrum disorders, and others. There are many people in California and world-wide that suffer from these mentally debilitating diseases. Therefore, there is a great need to develop therapies for these diseases. However, currently drug development is largely restricted to animal models and very often drug candidates that are successful in e.g. rodent animals can not be applied to human. It would thus be much better to possess a model that reflects the human disease much closer, ideally using human cells.

We have experimental evidence that we can develop such a model. In particular, we will convert skin cells from patients suffering from psychiatric diseases into stem cells that are "pluripotent", which means they can differentiate into all cell types of the body including neurons. We want to explore whether these patient-derived neurons still contain the disease features that the neurons have in the brain. If we could indeed capture the disease in these cells, our technology would have a major impact on future work in this area. We believe that this approach could be applied to many neurological diseases including neurodegenerative diseases.

Our technology would not only provide a unique experimental basis to begin to understand how these diseases work, but it would allow to then interfere with the identified cellular abnormalities which would secondarily result in the development of new drugs that can counteract the diseases and would hopefully also work for the patients themselves.

Therefore, all those Californians that suffer from one of the above mentioned diseases will benefit from our research project, if it is successful.

Progress Report: 

During this first year of our project we have largely focused on testing various methods to directly differentiate human ES cells into neurons. As described in more detail below we were very successful and developed ways to differentiate human stem cell lines into neuronal cells with high purity and good maturation characteristics. For example, we can analyze the electrical currents in these cells which are important functional properties of neurons and we observed that these cells indeed behave just like neurons in the brain. More specifically, the cells were able to generate action potentials which are necessary in the brain to transmit information from one neuron to the other as well as form synapses, which are the structures that connect the different neurons with each other.Because the differentiation of different stem cell lines needs to be robust and reproducible we spent a lot of time optimizing the protocol and tested many different stem cell lines. This revealed a high degree of reproducibility and purity of the stem cell-derived nerve cells and we have tested human embryonic stem cells (i.e. stem cells derived from the embryo) as well as induced pluripotent (iPS) cells (i.e. stem cells reprogrammed from human skin cells). Reassuringly, the same method works in all these cell lines with very similar dynamics and functional properties of the nerve cells.

We also have made significant advances to convert human fibroblasts into nerve cells directly and without going through an intermediate iPS cell state. We have identified a neuronal factor called NeuroD1 as critical co-factor that in addition to the three factors that we had identified earlier to work in mouse. Those 4 factors together now allowed the generation of fully functional so called "induced neuronal" (iN) cells from both fetal and early postnatal human foreskin fibroblasts. We have also tested a number of small molecules to attempt to increase the reprogramming efficiency.

Finally, we have generated some essential components that will allow us to study Rett Syndrome using these technologies that are being developed at the same time (described above). In the last year we have generated several lines of iPS cells from Rett Syndrome patients and are in the process of fully characterizing them. We plan to soon apply our optimized differentiation protocol to these cells as well as control cells to look for any possible disease trait that distinguishes cells from patients and controls.

The generation of human pluripotent stem cells from discarded embryos (embryonic stem cells or ES cells) and directly from skin cells through reprogramming (induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells) holds great promise, and may revolutionize the study of human diseases. In particular, the principle possibility to turn these stem cells into fully functional neurons would provide a novel cell platform that provides excellent experimental access to study human neurons that are derived from healthy controls or diseased individuals. However, the goal to actually derive mature neurons from these stem cell populations has not been accomplished yet. While there have been many ways developed how to instruct these stem cells into specific neurons and even neuronal subtypes, these differentiation protocols take many months to complete and are laborious and most importantly, do not yield fully mature neurons. We have recently discovered a way to convert human newborn skin cells directly into functional neurons but the efficiencies were low and also most of these induced neuronal cells were still immature.

The goal of this project is to improve these methods and develop tools that actually allow the generation of mature human neurons. We proposed to approach this problem in two different and complementary ways: (1) We proposed to apply the methods that we used to convert human skin cells into neurons to both stem cell populations (ES and iPS cells). (2) We proposed to further improve the direct conversion of skin cells into induced neuronal cells by systematic evaluation of culture conditions and small molecule modulators alone and in combination. Finally, we then proposed to apply our newly derived tools to study one common autism-related childhood disease, called Rett Syndrome, which affects exclusively girls, which undergo normal development and brain maturation but after a period of months to years present with developmental retardation and in some cases severe behavioral and social deficiencies.

We are very happy to be able to report that we have made great progress towards the development of our proposed tools and are now beginning already to apply them to the study of Rett Syndrome as proposed. In particular, we have perfected the application of the technique to convert human stem cells into fully functional induced neuronal cells. With this approach we are ready, to investigate the detailed electric connectivity of neural circuits in induced neuronal cells in disease and non-disease condition.
We have also made good progress with the second approach and showed that it is possible to improve the conversion efficiencies significantly by using small molecule inhibitors and changing the environmental oxygen concentration. We are currently exploring whether these efficiencies are high enough to enable disease modeling while we continue to optimize the culture methods.

We have generated a new tool to study brain function on the cellular level. The differentiation of pluripotent stem cells like embryonic or induced pluripotent stem cells into functional nerve cells (neurons) remains a challenge. We here demonstrated that specific factors that normally regulate brain development can be exploited to "fast forward" the differentiation of human stem cells into neurons. Since these neurons are induced using exogenous factors we call these cells "induced neuronal cells" or in brief "iN" cells. Stem cell-derived iN cells show all principal functional properties of neurons, ie, they can communicate with each other (form synapses) and use electrical signals to convey information (ability to generate action potentials). Within just 2-3 weeks fully functional neuronal networks can be established using these human neurons.
We next demonstrated that different factor combinations yields different kind of neurons allowing us to reconstruct complex cell mixtures resembling those of normal neuronal cultures.
We also show that iN cells are useful proxies that report disease traits on the cellular level. In particular we demonstrated that a gene mutation that is associated with Schizophrenia leads to a functional defect measurable in human iN cells. This might lead to important new methods to find treatments for these devastating diseases.