Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are a heritable group of neurodevelopmental disorders that affect the verbal, social, and behavioral abilities of affected individuals. There are no pharmacological treatments for ASDs, in part because of a lack of validated cellular and animal models for use in drug screens. The goal of this project is to develop and validate a cell-based high throughput screening method that we will use to identify therapies for ASDs.
Our laboratory has established methods for collecting skin samples from patients and reprogramming these cells into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which we then differentiate into neurons. We have characterized neurons from patients with ASDs, and identified cellular phenotypes that are amenable to high-throughput methods to identify drug targets. Our efforts in Year 2 of our CIRM funding have focused on Phelan-McDermid Syndrome (PMDS), an inherited progressive neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by developmental delay, absent or severely impaired speech, and an increased risk of autism. We have discovered that neurons from PMDS patients who have autism have defects in excitatory synaptic transmission caused by the loss of one copy of the gene Shank3. Shank3 lies in the region of Chromosome 22 that is deleted in PMDS, and is important for the development of synapses. Based on our studies, PMDS neurons can be distinguished from their wildtype counterparts by low expression levels of Shank3 measured by quantitative PCR, decreased number of excitatory synapses labeled by immunocytochemistry and imaged with a microscope, and reduced excitatory cellular currents measured electrophysiologically. Each of these phenotypes is amenable to high throughput screening of therapeutic compounds. We tested several candidate therapeutics and found that prolonged treatment with the growth factor IGF-1 partially reverses the defects we have discovered in PMDS neurons. While IGF-1 is highly bioactive and therefore not an ideal drug candidate, it can be used to validate our screening method.
We are currently running trials to select the best phenotype and assay for larger-scale screening. In parallel, we have developed protocols to culture large numbers of iPSC-derived neurons for high throughput screens, and we are growing and banking working stocks of PMDS and control neurons. These experiments will help us identify drug candidates for PMDS, and will represent a significant advance in HTS approaches for the testing of ASD therapies using iPSC-based systems.