Parkinson’s disease (PD) is caused by the loss of dopaminergic (DA) neurons in the midbrain. These DA neurons are the main source of dopamine, an important chemical in the central nervous system. PD is a common neurological disorder, affecting 1% of those at 60 years old and 4% of those over 80. Unfortunately, there is no cure for PD, nor are there any long-term therapeutics without harmful side effects. Therefore, there is a need for new therapies to halt or reverse the disease. The goal of this study is to develop a new technology that helps us obtain a purer, more abundant population of DA neurons in a culture dish and to characterize the resulting cells. These cells will be useful for studying the disease, screening potential drugs, and developing cell therapies.
Due to recent discoveries, we can introduce specific genes into adult human skin cells and generate cells similar to embryonic stem cells, termed induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). These iPSC, when derived from PD patients, can be used as an experimental model to study disease mechanisms that are unique to PD, because when differentiated into DA neurons, these cells are actually pathologically affected with PD. We are using a PD iPSC line called PI-1754 derived from a patient with a severe mutation in the SNCA gene, which encodes alpha-synuclein. The SNCA mutation causes dramatic clinical symptoms of PD, with early-onset progressive disease. For comparison we are using a normal, unaffected sibling iPSC line PI-1761. We are also using a normal human embryonic stem cell (ESC) line H9 as the gold standard for differentiation.
The current methods for differentiating iPSC into DA neurons are not adequate in terms of efficiency and reliability. Our hypothesis is that forced expression of certain midbrain-specific genes called transcription factors will direct iPSC to differentiate more effectively into DA neurons in cell culture. We use transcription factors called Lmx1a, Otx2, and FoxA2, abbreviated L, O, and F. In this project, we have developed a new, efficient gene integration technology that allows us rapidly to introduce and express these transcription factor genes in various combinations, in order to test whether they stimulate the differentiation of iPSC into DA neurons.
In the first year of the project, we began establishing iPSC and ESC lines that contained a genomic “landing pad” site for insertion of the transcription factor genes. We carefully chose a location for placement of the genes based on previous work in mouse that suggested that a site on human chromosome 22 would provide strong and constant gene expression. We initially used ordinary homologous recombination to place the landing pad into this site. By the end of year 1 of the project, this method was successful in the normal iPSC and in the ESC, but not in the more difficult-to-grow PD iPSC. To solve this problem, in year 2 we introduced a new and more powerful recombination technology, called TALENs, and were successful in placing the landing pad in the correct position in all three of the lines, including the PD iPSC.
We were now in a position to insert the midbrain-specific transcription factor genes with high efficiency. For this step, we developed a new genome engineering methodology called DICE, for dual integrase cassette exchange. In this technology, we use two site-specific integrase enzymes, called phiC31 and Bxb1, to catalyze precise placement of the transcription factor genes into the desired place in the genome.
We constructed gene cassettes carrying all pair-wise combinations of the L, O, and F transcription factors, LO, LF, and OF, and the triple combination, LOF. We successfully demonstrated the power of this technology by rapidly generating a large set of iPSC and ESC that contained all the above combinations of transcription factors, as well as lines that contained no transcription factors, as negative controls for comparison. Two examples of each type of line for the 1754 and 1761 iPSC and the H9 ESC were chosen for differentiation and functional characterization studies. Initial results from these studies have demonstrated correct differentiation of neural stem cells and expression of the introduced transcription factor genes.
In summary, we were successful in obtaining ESC and iPSC lines from normal and PD patient cells that carry a landing pad in a pre-selected genomic location chosen and validated for strong gene expression. These lines are valuable reagents. We then modified these lines to add DA-associated transcription factors in four combinations. All these lines are currently undergoing differentiation studies in accordance with the year two and three timelines. During year three of the project, the correlation between expression of various transcription factors and the level of DA differentiation will be established. Furthermore, functional studies with the PD versus normal lines will be carried out.