Most human neurodegenerative diseases share a phenotype of neuronal protein aggregation. In Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the abundant protein superoxide dismutase (SOD1) or the TAR-DNA binding protein TDP-43 can aggregate in motor neurons. Recently, numerous studies have highlighted the ability of aggregates to spread from neuron to neuron in a prion-like fashion. These studies have typically focused on the use of neuron-like cell lines or neurons that are not normally affected by the specific aggregated protein being studied. Here, we have investigated the uptake of pre-formed SOD1 aggregates by cultures containing pluripotent stem cell-derived human motor neurons. We found that all cells take up aggregates by a process resembling fluid-phase endocytosis, just as found in earlier studies. However, motor neurons, despite taking up smaller amounts of SOD1, were much more vulnerable to the accumulating aggregates. Thus, the propagation of disease pathology depends less on selective uptake than on selective response to intracellular aggregates. We further demonstrate that anti-SOD1 antibodies, being considered as ALS therapeutics, can act by blocking the uptake of SOD1, but also by blocking the toxic effects of intracellular SOD1. This work demonstrates the importance of using disease relevant cells even in studying phenomena such as aggregate propagation.
Aging is the biggest risk factor for several neurodegenerative diseases. Parabiosis experiments have established that old mouse brains are improved by exposure to young mouse blood. Previously, our lab showed that delivery of Growth Differentiation Factor 11 (GDF11) to the bloodstream increases the number of neural stem cells and positively affects vasculature in the subventricular zone of old mice. Our new study demonstrates that GDF11 enhances hippocampal neurogenesis, improves vasculature and increases markers of neuronal activity and plasticity in the hippocampus and cortex of old mice. Our experiments also demonstrate that systemically delivered GDF11, rather than crossing the blood brain barrier, exerts at least some of its effects by acting on brain endothelial cells. Thus, by targeting the cerebral vasculature, GDF11 has a very different mechanism from that of previously studied circulating factors acting to improve central nervous system (CNS) function without entering the CNS.
Variations in a multitude of material microenvironmental properties have been observed across tissues in vivo, and these have profound effects on cell phenotype. Phenomenological experiments have suggested that certain of these features of the physical microenvironment, such as stiffness, could sensitize cells to other features; meanwhile, mechanistic studies have detailed a number of biophysical mechanisms for this sensing. However, the broad molecular consequences of these potentially complex and nonlinear interactions bridging from biophysical sensing to phenotype have not been systematically characterized, limiting the overall understanding and rational deployment of these biophysical cues. Here, we explore these interactions by employing a 3D cell culture system that allows for the independent control of culture substrate stiffness, stress relaxation, and adhesion ligand density to systematically explore the transcriptional programs affected by distinct combinations of biophysical parameters using RNA-seq. In mouse mesenchymal stem cells and human cortical neuron progenitors, we find dramatic coupling among these substrate properties, and that the relative contribution of each property to changes in gene expression varies with cell type. Motivated by the bioinformatic analysis, the stiffness of hydrogels encapsulating mouse mesenchymal stem cells was found to regulate the secretion of a wide range of cytokines, and to accordingly influence hematopoietic stem cell differentiation in a Transwell coculture model. These results give insights into how biophysical features are integrated by cells across distinct tissues and offer strategies to synthetic biologists and bioengineers for designing responses to a cell's biophysical environment.
The genetic complexity, clinical variability, and inaccessibility of affected tissue in neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders have largely prevented the development of effective disease-modifying therapeutics. A precision medicine approach that integrates genomics, deep clinical phenotyping, and patient stem cell models may facilitate identification of underlying biological drivers and targeted drug development.
Human neurons expressing mutations associated with neurodegenerative disease are becoming more widely available. Hence, developing assays capable of accurately detecting changes that occur early in the disease process and identifying therapeutics able to slow these changes should become ever more important. Using automated live-cell imaging, we studied human motor neurons in the process of dying following neurotrophic factor withdrawal. We tracked different neuronal features, including cell body size, neurite length, and number of nodes. In particular, measuring the number of nodes in individual neurons proved to be an accurate predictor of relative health. Importantly, intermediate phenotypes were defined and could be used to distinguish between agents that could fully restore neurons and neurites and those only capable of maintaining neuronal cell bodies. Application of live-cell imaging to disease modeling has the potential to uncover new classes of therapeutic molecules that intervene early in disease progression.
Loss of cardiomyocytes is a major cause of heart failure, and while the adult heart has a limited capacity for cardiomyogenesis, little is known about what regulates this ability or whether it can be effectively harnessed. Here we show that 8 weeks of running exercise increase birth of new cardiomyocytes in adult mice (~4.6-fold). New cardiomyocytes are identified based on incorporation of 15N-thymidine by multi-isotope imaging mass spectrometry (MIMS) and on being mononucleate/diploid. Furthermore, we demonstrate that exercise after myocardial infarction induces a robust cardiomyogenic response in an extended border zone of the infarcted area. Inhibition of miR-222, a microRNA increased by exercise in both animal models and humans, completely blocks the cardiomyogenic exercise response. These findings demonstrate that cardiomyogenesis can be activated by exercise in the normal and injured adult mouse heart and suggest that stimulation of endogenous cardiomyocyte generation could contribute to the benefits of exercise.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a degenerative motor neuron (MN) disease caused by loss of functional SMN protein due to SMN1 gene mutations, is a leading cause of infant mortality. Increasing SMN levels ameliorates the disease phenotype and is unanimously accepted as a therapeutic approach for SMA patients. The ubiquitin/proteasome system is known to regulate SMN protein levels; however whether autophagy controls SMN levels remains poorly explored. Here we show that SMN protein is degraded by autophagy. Pharmacological and genetic inhibition of autophagy increase SMN levels, while induction of autophagy decreases SMN. SMN degradation occurs via its interaction with the autophagy adapter p62/SQSTM1. We also show that SMA neurons display reduced autophagosome clearance, increased p62/ubiquitinated protein levels, and hyperactivated mTORC1 signaling. Importantly, reducing p62 levels markedly increases SMN and its binding partner gemin2, promotes MN survival and extends lifespan in fly and mouse SMA models revealing p62 as a new potential therapeutic target to treat SMA.
Flux through kinase and ubiquitin-driven signaling systems depends on the modification kinetics, stoichiometry, primary site specificity, and target abundance within the pathway, yet we rarely understand these parameters and their spatial organization within cells. Here we develop temporal digital snapshots of ubiquitin signaling on the mitochondrial outer membrane in embryonic stem cell-derived neurons, and we model HeLa cell systems upon activation of the PINK1 kinase and PARKIN ubiquitin ligase by proteomic counting of ubiquitylation and phosphorylation events. We define the kinetics and site specificity of PARKIN-dependent target ubiquitylation, and we demonstrate the power of this approach to quantify pathway modulators and to mechanistically define the role of PARKIN UBL phosphorylation in pathway activation in induced neurons. Finally, through modulation of pS65-Ub on mitochondria, we demonstrate that Ub hyper-phosphorylation is inhibitory to mitophagy receptor recruitment, indicating that pS65-Ub stoichiometry in vivo is optimized to coordinate PARKIN recruitment via pS65-Ub and mitophagy receptors via unphosphorylated chains.
Microscopy is a central method in life sciences. Many popular methods, such as antibody labeling, are used to add physical fluorescent labels to specific cellular constituents. However, these approaches have significant drawbacks, including inconsistency; limitations in the number of simultaneous labels because of spectral overlap; and necessary perturbations of the experiment, such as fixing the cells, to generate the measurement. Here, we show that a computational machine-learning approach, which we call "in silico labeling" (ISL), reliably predicts some fluorescent labels from transmitted-light images of unlabeled fixed or live biological samples. ISL predicts a range of labels, such as those for nuclei, cell type (e.g., neural), and cell state (e.g., cell death). Because prediction happens in silico, the method is consistent, is not limited by spectral overlap, and does not disturb the experiment. ISL generates biological measurements that would otherwise be problematic or impossible to acquire.
Human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) can provide sources for midbrain dopaminergic (mDA) neural progenitors (NPCs) for cell therapy to treat Parkinson's disease (PD) patients. However, the well-known line-to-cell line variability in the differentiation capacity of individual cell lines needs to be improved for the success of this therapy. To address this issue, we sought to identify mDA NPC specific cell surface markers for fluorescence activated cell sorting (FACS). Through RNA isolation after sorting for NPCs based on staining for cell-specific transcription factors followed by microarray, we identified two positive cell surface markers (CORIN and CD166) and one negative cell surface marker (CXCR4) for mDA NPC sorting. These three markers can enrich floor plate NPCs to 90% purity, and the sorted NPCs more efficiently differentiate to mature dopaminergic neurons compared to unsorted or CORIN alone mDA NPCs. This surface marker identification strategy can be used broadly to facilitate isolation of cell subtypes of interest from heterogeneous cultures.
Background—Defining conserved molecular pathways in animal models of successful cardiac regeneration could yield insight into why adult mammals have inadequate cardiac regeneration after injury. Insight into the transcriptomic landscape of early cardiac regeneration from model organisms will shed light on evolutionarily conserved pathways in successful cardiac regeneration.
Methods—Here we describe a cross-species transcriptomic screen in three model organisms for cardiac regeneration -axolotl, neonatal mice and zebrafish. Apical resection to remove ~10 - 20% of ventricular mass was carried out in these model organisms. RNA-seq analysis was performed on the hearts harvested at three time points - 12, 24 and 48 hours post-resection. Sham surgery was used as internal control.
Results—Genes associated with inflammatory processes were found to be upregulated in a conserved manner. Complement receptors (activated by complement components, part of the innate immune system) were found to be highly upregulated in all three species. This approach revealed induction of gene expression for Complement 5a receptor1 (C5aR1) in the regenerating hearts of zebrafish, axolotls and mice. Inhibition of C5aR1 significantly attenuated the cardiomyocyte proliferative response to heart injury in all three species. Furthermore, following left ventricular apical resection, the cardiomyocyte proliferative response was abolished in mice with genetic deletion of C5aR1.
Conclusions—These data reveal that activation of C5aR1 mediates an evolutionarily conserved response that promotes cardiomyocyte proliferation following cardiac injury and identify complement pathway activation as a common pathway of successful heart regeneration.
The neuromuscular disorder spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), the most common inherited killer of infants, is caused by insufficient expression of survival motor neuron (SMN) protein. SMA therapeutics development efforts have focused on identifying strategies to increase SMN expression. We identified a long non-coding RNA (lncRNA) that arises from the antisense strand of SMN, SMN-AS1, which is enriched in neurons and transcriptionally represses SMN expression by recruiting the epigenetic Polycomb repressive complex-2. Targeted degradation of SMN-AS1 with antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs) increases SMN expression in patient-derived cells, cultured neurons, and the mouse central nervous system. SMN-AS1 ASOs delivered together with SMN2 splice-switching oligonucleotides additively increase SMN expression and improve survival of severe SMA mice. This study is the first proof of concept that targeting a lncRNA to transcriptionally activate SMN2 can be combined with SMN2 splicing modification to ameliorate SMA and demonstrates the promise of combinatorial ASOs for the treatment of neurogenetic disorders.
Axon degeneration is an early event and pathological in neurodegenerative conditions and nerve injuries. To discover agents that suppress neuronal death and axonal degeneration, we performed drug screens on primary rodent neurons and identified the pan-kinase inhibitor foretinib, which potently rescued sympathetic, sensory, and motor wt and SOD1 mutant neurons from trophic factor withdrawal-induced degeneration. By using primary sympathetic neurons grown in mass cultures and Campenot chambers, we show that foretinib protected neurons by suppressing both known degenerative pathways and a new pathway involving unliganded TrkA and transcriptional regulation of the proapoptotic BH3 family members BimEL, Harakiri,and Puma, culminating in preservation of mitochondria in the degenerative setting. Foretinib delayed chemotherapy-induced and Wallerian axonal degeneration in culture by preventing axotomy-induced local energy deficit and preserving mitochondria, and peripheral Wallerian degeneration in vivo. These findings identify a new axon degeneration pathway and a potentially clinically useful therapeutic drug.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a fatal and rapidly progressing motor neuron disease. Astrocytic factors are known to contribute to motor neuron degeneration and death in ALS. However, the role of astrocyte in promoting motor neuron protein aggregation, a disease hallmark of ALS, remains largely unclear. Here, using culture models of human motor neurons and primary astrocytes of different genotypes (wild-type or SOD1 mutant) and reactive states (non-reactive or reactive), we show that reactive astrocytes, regardless of their genotypes, reduce motor neuron health and lead to moderate neuronal loss. After prolonged co-cultures of up to 2 months, motor neurons show increased axonal and cytoplasmic protein inclusions characteristic of ALS. Reactive astrocytes induce protein aggregation in part by releasing transforming growth factor β1 (TGF-β1), which disrupts motor neuron autophagy through the mTOR pathway. These results reveal the important contribution of reactive astrocytes in promoting aspects of ALS pathology independent of genetic influences.
Utilizing patient derived cells has enormous promise for discovering new drugs for diseases of the nervous system, a goal that has been historically quite challenging. In this review, we will outline the potential of human stem cell derived neuron models for assessing therapeutics and high-throughput screening and compare to more traditional drug discovery strategies. We summarize recent successes of the approach and discuss special considerations for developing human stem cell based assays. New technologies, such as genome editing, offer improvements to help overcome the challenges that remain. Finally, human neurons derived from patient cells have advantages for translational research beyond drug screening as they can also be used to identify individual efficacy and safety prior to clinical testing and for dissecting disease mechanisms. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled SI: Exploiting human neurons.
Glycogen synthase kinase 3 β (GSK-3β) is a central target in several unmet diseases. To increase the specificity of GSK-3β inhibitors in chronic treatments, we developed small molecules allowing subtle modulation of GSK-3β activity. Design synthesis, structure-activity relationships, and binding mode of quinoline-3-carbohydrazide derivatives as allosteric modulators of GSK-3β are presented here. Furthermore, we show how allosteric binders may overcome the β-catenin side effects associated with strong GSK-3β inhibition. The therapeutic potential of some of these modulators has been tested in human samples from patients with congenital myotonic dystrophy type 1 (CDM1) and spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) patients. We found that compound 53 improves delayed myogenesis in CDM1 myoblasts, while compounds 1 and 53 have neuroprotective properties in SMA-derived cells. These findings suggest that the allosteric modulators of GSK-3β may be used for future development of drugs for DM1, SMA, and other chronic diseases where GSK-3β inhibition exhibits therapeutic effects.
In vitro models of the developing brain such as three-dimensional brain organoids offer an unprecedented opportunity to study aspects of human brain development and disease. However, the cells generated within organoids and the extent to which they recapitulate the regional complexity, cellular diversity and circuit functionality of the brain remain undefined. Here we analyse gene expression in over 80,000 individual cells isolated from 31 human brain organoids. We find that organoids can generate a broad diversity of cells, which are related to endogenous classes, including cells from the cerebral cortex and the retina. Organoids could be developed over extended periods (more than 9 months), allowing for the establishment of relatively mature features, including the formation of dendritic spines and spontaneously active neuronal networks. Finally, neuronal activity within organoids could be controlled using light stimulation of photosensitive cells, which may offer a way to probe the functionality of human neuronal circuits using physiological sensory stimuli.
Cell type-specific changes in neuronal excitability have been proposed to contribute to the selective degeneration of corticospinal neurons in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and to neocortical hyperexcitability, a prominent feature of both inherited and sporadic variants of the disease, but the mechanisms underlying selective loss of specific cell types in ALS are not known. We analyzed the physiological properties of distinct classes of cortical neurons in the motor cortex of hSOD1G93A mice of both sexes and found that they all exhibit increases in intrinsic excitability that depend on disease stage. Targeted recordings and in vivo calcium imaging further revealed that neurons adapt their functional properties to normalize cortical excitability as the disease progresses. Although different neuron classes all exhibited increases in intrinsic excitability, transcriptional profiling indicated that the molecular mechanisms underlying these changes are cell type specific. The increases in excitability in both excitatory and inhibitory cortical neurons show that selective dysfunction of neuronal cell types cannot account for the specific vulnerability of corticospinal motor neurons in ALS. Furthermore, the stage-dependent alterations in neuronal function highlight the ability of cortical circuits to adapt as disease progresses. These findings show that both disease stage and cell type must be considered when developing therapeutic strategies for treating ALS.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT It is not known why certain classes of neurons preferentially die in different neurodegenerative diseases. It has been proposed that the enhanced excitability of affected neurons is a major contributor to their selective loss. We show using a mouse model of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease in which corticospinal neurons exhibit selective vulnerability, that changes in excitability are not restricted to this neuronal class and that excitability does not increase monotonically with disease progression. Moreover, although all neuronal cell types tested exhibited abnormal functional properties, analysis of their gene expression demonstrated cell type-specific responses to the ALS-causing mutation. These findings suggest that therapies for ALS may need to be tailored for different cell types and stages of disease.
Three-dimensional (3D) brain organoids derived from human pluripotent stem cells hold great potential to investigate complex human genetic states and to model aspects of human brain development and pathology. However, the field of brain organoids is still in its infancy, and their use has been limited by their variability and their inability to differentiate into 3D structures with reproducible anatomical organization. Here, starting from a review of basic principles of in vitro 'brain organogenesis', we discuss which aspects of human brain development and disease can be faithfully modeled with current brain organoid protocols, and discuss improvements that would allow them to become reliable tools to investigate complex features of human brain development and disease.