Year 2

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.