Year 1

Dopaminergic (DA) neurons of the midbrain are the main source of dopamine in the mammalian central nervous system. Their loss is associated with a prominent human neurological disorder, Parkinson’s disease (PD). There is no cure for PD, nor are there any good long-term therapeutics without deleterious side effects. Therefore, there is a great need for novel therapies to halt or reverse the disease. The objective of this study is to develop a new technology to obtain a purer, more abundant population of midbrain DA neurons in a culture dish. Such cells would be useful for disease modeling, drug screening, and development of cell therapies.

Recent discoveries allow us to use adult human skin cells, introduce specific genes into them, and generate cells, termed induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), that exhibit the characteristics of embryonic stem cells. These iPSC, when derived from PD patient skin cells, can be used as an experimental model to study disease mechanisms that are unique to PD. When differentiated into DA neurons, and these cells are actually pathologically affected with PD.

The current methods for directed DA neuronal differentiation from iPSC are inadequate in terms of efficiency and reproducibility. This situation hinders the ability to establish a robust model for PD-related neurodegeneration. In this study, we use a new, efficient gene integration technology to induce expression of midbrain-specific genes in iPSC lines derived from a patient with PD and a normal sibling. Forced expression of these midbrain transcription factor genes directs iPSC to differentiate into DA neurons in cell culture. A purer population of midbrain DA neurons may lay the foundation for successfully modeling PD and improving hit rates in drug screening approaches.

The milestones for the first year of the project were to establish PD-specific iPSC lines that contain genomic “docking” sites, termed “attP” sites. In year 2, these iPSC/attP cell lines will be used to insert midbrain-specific transcription factors with high efficiency, mediated by enzymes called integrases. We previously established an improved, high-efficiency, site-specific DNA integration technology in mice. This technology combines the integrase system with newly identified, actively expressed locations in the genome and ensures efficient, uniform gene expression.

The PD patient-specific iPSC lines we used were PI-1754, which contains a severe mutation in the SNCA (synuclein alpha) gene, and an unaffected sibling line, PI-1761. The SNCA mutation causes dramatic clinical symptoms of PD, with early-onset progressive disease. We use a homologous recombination-based procedure to place the “docking” site, attP, at well-expressed locations in the SNCA and control iPSC lines (Aim 1.1). We also included a human embryonic stem cell line, H9, to monitor our experimental procedures. The genomic locations we chose for placement of the attP sites included a site on chromosome 22 (Chr22) and a second, backup site on chromosome 19 (Chr19). These two sites were chosen based on mouse studies, in which mouse equivalents of both locations conferred strong gene expression. In order to perform recombination, we constructed targeting vectors, each containing an attP cassette flanked by 5’ and 3’ homologous fragments corresponding to the human genomic location we want to target. For the Chr22 locus, we were able to obtain all 3 targeting constructs for the PI-1754, PI-1761 and H9 cell lines. For technical reasons, we were not able to obtain constructs for the Chr19 location Thus, we decided to focus on the Chr22 locus and move to the next step.

We introduced the targeting vectors into the cells and selected for positive clones by both drug selection and green fluorescent protein expression. For the H9 cells, we obtained 110 double positive clones and analyzed 98 of them. We found 8 clones that had targeted the attP site precisely to the Chr22 locus. For the PI-1761 sibling control line, we obtained 44 clones, and 1 of them had the attP site inserted at the Chr22 locus. The PI-1754 SNCA mutant line, on the other hand, grows slowly in cell culture. We are in the process of obtaining enough cells to perform the recombination experiment in that cell line.

In summary, we demonstrated that the experimental strategy proposed in the grant indeed worked. We were successful in obtaining iPSC lines with a “docking” site placed in a pre-selected human genomic location. These cell lines are the necessary materials that set the stage for us to fulfill the milestones of year 2.