Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are a heritable group of neurodevelopmental disorders that affect the verbal, social, and behavioral ability of affected in individual. There are no treatments for ASD, in part because the biological basis for the disorders are not know. In addition, there are no methods for screening drugs that may be therapeutic. The goal of this project was to develop screening assays based on stem cells that were derived from individuals with autism.
Using skin samples from affected individuals, our laboratory was able to generate induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) and use these stem cells to generate neurons. With CIRM support, we have now generated iPSC from many individuals, some of whom carry genetic alterations that cause autism. Work under this award focused on two genetic disorders, Timothy Syndrome (TS) and Phelan-McDermid Syndrome (PMDS). Both are inherited syndromes that affect several body systems and also greatly increase the risk of autism. In each case, we found that neurons from affected individuals displayed changes in the way neurons connect and communicate. The effects were pronounced in PMDS neurons, in part due to the loss of the Shank3 gene that is involved in the function of the excitatory synapse. Work in year 3 has focused on identifying a robust alteration in neuron function that can be used for drug screening.
One such phenotype was discovered and involves a change in the way calcium is utilized when neurons communicate by generating an electrical current. Using chemicals that detect calcium, fluorescent assays were developed that show a robust difference in calcium response in PMDS neurons relative to neurons from unaffected individuals. Adapting the fluorescent calcium reporter assay to a high-throughput format also required the invention of new stem cell culture methods for generating neurons that were more efficient and less costly. Ultimately, a novel strategy was developed that now permits the production of very large numbers of neurons that can be assayed in high throughput screens. A limited screen using candidate drugs has confirmed the utility of the assay and future work will utilize these assays in large scale screens for drugs that normalize or augment the synaptic defects.