The generation of human pluripotent stem cells from discarded embryos (embryonic stem cells or ES cells) and directly from skin cells through reprogramming (induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells) holds great promise, and may revolutionize the study of human diseases. In particular, the principle possibility to turn these stem cells into fully functional neurons would provide a novel cell platform that provides excellent experimental access to study human neurons that are derived from healthy controls or diseased individuals. However, the goal to actually derive mature neurons from these stem cell populations has not been accomplished yet. While there have been many ways developed how to instruct these stem cells into specific neurons and even neuronal subtypes, these differentiation protocols take many months to complete and are laborious and most importantly, do not yield fully mature neurons. We have recently discovered a way to convert human newborn skin cells directly into functional neurons but the efficiencies were low and also most of these induced neuronal cells were still immature.
The goal of this project is to improve these methods and develop tools that actually allow the generation of mature human neurons. We proposed to approach this problem in two different and complementary ways: (1) We proposed to apply the methods that we used to convert human skin cells into neurons to both stem cell populations (ES and iPS cells). (2) We proposed to further improve the direct conversion of skin cells into induced neuronal cells by systematic evaluation of culture conditions and small molecule modulators alone and in combination. Finally, we then proposed to apply our newly derived tools to study one common autism-related childhood disease, called Rett Syndrome, which affects exclusively girls, which undergo normal development and brain maturation but after a period of months to years present with developmental retardation and in some cases severe behavioral and social deficiencies.
We are very happy to be able to report that we have made great progress towards the development of our proposed tools and are now beginning already to apply them to the study of Rett Syndrome as proposed. In particular, we have perfected the application of the technique to convert human stem cells into fully functional induced neuronal cells. With this approach we are ready, to investigate the detailed electric connectivity of neural circuits in induced neuronal cells in disease and non-disease condition.
We have also made good progress with the second approach and showed that it is possible to improve the conversion efficiencies significantly by using small molecule inhibitors and changing the environmental oxygen concentration. We are currently exploring whether these efficiencies are high enough to enable disease modeling while we continue to optimize the culture methods.