Year 5 +NCE

Patients with Parkinson’s disease have malfunctioning or dying dopaminergic (DA) neurons. Human embryonic stem cells can be differentiated into DA neurons for transplantation with the potential to cure this disease, yet the differentiation mechanism is not very clear. The differentiation of embryonic stem cells to DA neurons has been found to be regulated by a nuclear hormone receptor Nurr1, but how Nurr1 is involved in this complicated process remains unclear – no ligands or protein partners have been uncovered for Nurr1. To understand the regulation mechanism in molecular details, we proposed to incorporate non-natural amino acids into Nurr1 directly in stem cells, and use the novel properties of these amino acids to identify the protein partners of Nurr1. Once these partners are discovered, effective protocols can be developed to generate high purity DA neurons for therapeutic purposes. In the past year, after testing numerous conditions in various cell lines, we discovered that photo-crosslinking is inefficient in capturing proteins interacting with Nurr1, possibly because the affinity between the unknown target protein and Nurr1 is too low. To overcome this challenge, we developed a new strategy of capture interacting proteins based on a novel class of non-natural amino acids, which do not require additional reagents nor external stimuli to function. We demonstrated the ability of these amino acids to crosslink proteins in the process of interacting with other proteins in live cells. We have also generated stable cell lines that are able to incorporate such non-natural amino acids. Using these new methods, we have been probing proteins that interact with Nurr1 during the differentiation of stem cells, which should eventually enable us to come up with new strategies for making DA neurons from embryonic stem cells.