In Year 3 we completed making all iPSC lines from Spinal Muscular Atrophy patients. We rigorously tested all the iPSCs for quality. These lines are now available for distribution to other California researchers along with a quality control certificate.
Motor neurons are a type of neuron that control muscle movement and are markedly destroyed in SMA patients. In order for these powerful iPS cells form patients to be useful for discovering new drugs for SMA it is very important that we can make motor neurons from iPSCs in billions and repeatedly. Only then will testing of thousands to millions of new drugs would be feasible in neurons from SMA patients.
To this end, we have created a method for making a predecessor cell type to human motor neurons from human iPSCs in a petri dish. These predecessor cells, known as motor neuron precursor spheres (iMPS), are grown as clumps of floating spherical balls, each containing thousands such cells that are grown in large numbers repeatedly for long periods of time. We have now tested our method in multiple patient cells and characterized these spheres. The iMPS have now been produced from many SMA patients as well as healthy humans. The next step we have developed is to take the iMPS to make motor neurons that are similar to those that are affected in SMA children. We have then discovered a method for creating them quickly. These aggregate spheres and spinal cord motor neurons from them can be preserved for long period of time by freezing them at very low temperatures. They are then awoken at a later time making it convenient for testing large numbers of drugs.
Since iPSCs have the power to make any cell type in the human body, they can also be contaminated with other unwanted types of cells. Typically such a technique is very difficult to accomplish in pluripotent stem cells such as embryonic and iPSCs. Therefore, we have designed a more efficient scheme to generate iPSC lines from SMA patients that will become fluorescent color (green, red or blue) when then motor neurons are made from iPSCs. These types of cells are known as reporter cell lines. This will aid in picking out the desired cell type from patient iPSCs, in this case a motor neuron, and discard any unwanted cell types. This will enormously simplify testing of new drugs in SMA patient motor neurons. Using new technologies that can edit, cut, copy, and paste new DNA in the stem cell genome, we are also developing ways to engineer iPS cell lines that will tag the motor neurons when they are made. This will allow us another method for making pure motor neurons and tracking them in a dish among other types of cells while they are alive.
Deficiency of an important SMN protein in SMA patients is one of the key causes to the course of the disease. An automated method has been developed for identifying what causes the SMA neurons to become sick and test new drugs in motor neurons. We are now gearing up to test some ~1400 known compounds on patient motor neurons to determine whether we can raise SMN protein levels in motor neurons.