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.