This research project is focused on developing new human stem cell lines that are specifically useful for studying human diseases and developing new therapeutic strategies. Human embryonic stem (hES) cells were first established in 1998 and in the past decade have been shown to be capable of differentiating to a vast array of different cell types. This full developmental potential is termed “pluripotency.” Until recently these were the only established human cell types that could be robustly grown in the laboratory setting and still maintain full pluripotent developmental potential. In November 1997 a new type of human pluripotent cell was created. By turning on a set of 4 genes, researchers succeeded in reprogramming human skin cells back into a cell type that appeared to have very similar properties and potential as the hES cell. These new stem cells are called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells in order to keep the name distinct from their embryonic derived counterpart. One of the scientific limitations of hES cells is the impracticality of generating patient or disease specific stem cell lines. This opportunity now becomes theoretically practical with the advent of human iPS cell line generation. We report here on significant progress demonstrating the practicality of generating disease-linked cellular models of human diseases.
We have identified 2 specific human neurological diseases that have known, or strongly suggested, genetic components and have set about to generate disease-linked iPS cell lines. We have obtained skin cell samples from patients with these neurological diseases and have successfully reprogrammed them back to iPS cells. These disease-linked pluripotent stem cells have been carefully characterized and we have demonstrated that they do indeed behave very similar to existing hES cells and also to the genetically healthy control iPS cell lines that we have generated. Therefore, the disease phenotype is not detrimental to reprogramming or proliferation as a stem cell. Furthermore, we have succeeded in coaxing these disease-linked iPS cells to turn into specific types of human neurons, the very cells that are suspected to be involved in the neurological disorders. We now have established a viable model for studying human neural disorders in the laboratory, and have already observed some potentially important functional differences between the disease-linked and control iPS-generated neurons. Importantly, we have found defects in the function of disease-linked neurons that can be corrected in part following specific drug treatments. This discovery demonstrates the potential utility to use this method of modeling human diseases in the laboratory as a tool for understanding the detailed pathways, which might contribute to the development of the disease state and, importantly, as a target for screening potential therapeutic compounds that might be used to block or slow the progress of human neural disorders. In the coming year we will finalize our efforts on this project.
We have also succeeded in developing an improved method for the delivery of the reprogramming genes into the patient cells in order to become iPS cells. This method allows the reprogramming genes to be removed thus mitigating the potential for unwanted and potentially detrimental reactivation of these reprogramming genes subsequent to the iPS cell state. We have begun work using this new reprogramming methodology to generate iPS cell lines that are specifically linked to diseases of the blood and immune system. The new methodology appears to be working well and we anticipate completing the generation and characterization of these new disease-linked stem cell lines within the next year of this project.