MEF2C-Directed Neurogenesis From Human Embryonic Stem Cells

MEF2C-Directed Neurogenesis From Human Embryonic Stem Cells

Funding Type: 
Comprehensive Grant
Grant Number: 
RC1-00125
Approved funds: 
$2,832,000
Disease Focus: 
Parkinson's Disease
Neurological Disorders
Stroke
Neurological Disorders
Stem Cell Use: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
Cell Line Generation: 
Embryonic Stem Cell
Public Abstract: 
Understanding differentiation of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) provides insight into early human development and will help directing hESC differentiation for future cell-based therapies of Parkinson’s disease, stroke and other neurodegenerative conditions. The PI’s laboratory was the first to clone and characterize the transcription factor MEF2C, a protein that can direct the orchestra of genes to produce a particular type of cell, in this case a nerve cell (or neuron). We have demonstrated that MEF2C directs the differentiation of mouse ES cells into neurons and suppresses glial fate. MEF2C also helps keep new nerve cells alive, which is very helpful for their successful transplantation. However, little is known about the role of MEF2C in human neurogenesis, that is, its ability to direct hESC differentiation into neuronal lineages such as dopaminergic neurons to treat Parkinson’s disease and its therapeutic potential to promote the generation of nerve cells in stem cell transplantation experiments. The goal of this application is to fill these gaps. The co-PI’s laboratory has recently developed a unique procedure for the efficient differentiation of hESCs into a uniform population of neural precursor cells (NPCs), which are progenitor cells that develop from embryonic stem cells and can form different kinds of mature cells in the nervous system. Here, we will investigate if MEF2C can instruct hESC-derived NPCs to differentiate into nerve cells, including dopaminergic nerve cells for Parkinson’s disease or other types of neurons that are lost after a stroke. Moreover, we will transplant hESC-NPCs engineered with MEF2C to try to treat animal models of stroke and Parkinson’s disease. We will characterize known and novel MEF2C target genes to identify critical components in the MEF2C transcriptional network in the clinically relevant cell population of hESC-derived neural precursor cells (hESC-NPCs). Specifically we will: 1) determine the function of MEF2C during in vitro neurogenesis (generation of new nerve cells) from hESC-NPCs; 2) investigate the therapeutic potential of MEF2C engineered hESC-NPCs in Parkinson’s and stroke models; 3) determine the MEF2C DNA (gene) binding sites and perform a “network” analysis of MEF2C target genes in order to understand how MEF2C works in driving the formation of new nerve cells from hESCs.
Statement of Benefit to California: 
Efficient and controlled neuronal differentiation from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) is mandatory for developing future clinical cell-based therapies. Strategies to direct differentiation towards neuronal vs. glial fate are critical for the development of a uniform population of desired neuronal specificities (e.g., dopaminergic neurons for Parkinson’s disease (PD)). Our laboratory was the first to clone and characterize the transcription factor MEF2C, the major isoform of MEF2 found in the developing brain. Based on our encouraging preliminary results that were obtained with mouse (m)ESC-derived and human fetal brain-derived neural precursors, we propose to investigate if MEF2C enhances neurogenesis from hESCs. In addition to neurogenic activity, we have shown that MEF2C exhibits an anti-apoptotic (that is, anti-death) effect and therefore increases cell survival. This dual function of MEF2C is extremely valuable for the purpose of transplantation of MEF2C-engineererd neural precursors. Additionally, we found MEF2 binding sites in the Nurr1 promoter region, which in the proper cell context, should enhance dopaminergic (DA) neuronal differentiation. We hypothesize that hESC-derived neural precursors engineered with MEF2C will selectively differentiate into neurons, which will be resistant to apoptotic death and not form tumors such as teratomas. We believe that our proposed research will lead us to a better understanding of the role of MEF2C in hESC differentiation to neurons. These results will lead to novel and effective means to direct hESCs to become neurons and to resist cell death. This information will ultimately lead to novel, stem cell-based therapies to treat stroke and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. We also believe that an effective, straightforward, and broadly understandable way to describe the benefits to the citizens of the State of California that will flow from the stem cell research we propose to conduct is to couch the work in the familiar, everyday business concept of “Return on Investment.” The novel therapies and reconstructions that will be developed and accomplished as a result of our research program and the many related programs that will follow will provide direct benefits to the health of California citizens. In addition, this program and its many complementary programs will generate potentially very large, tangible monetary benefits to the citizens of California. These financial benefits will derive directly from two sources. The first source will be the sale and licensing of the intellectual property rights that will accrue to the state and its citizens from this and the many other stem cell research programs that will be financed by CIRM. The second source will be the many different kinds of tax revenues that will be generated from the increased bio-science and bio-manufacturing businesses that will be attracted to California by the success of CIRM.
Progress Report: 

Year 1

In Year 02 of this grant, we have continued to refine the techniques developed for producing nerve cells from human embryonic stem cells (hESC). Central to our grant proposal is the expression of an active form of a protein called MEF2C, which we insert into the stem cells at a young age. MEF2C is a transcription factor, which is a molecule that regulates how RNA is converted to a protein. MEF2C regulates the production of proteins that are specifically found in neurons, and it plays an important role in making a stem cell into a nerve cell. Specific improvements this year in culture conditions have resulted in our being able to direct a much higher percentage of hESCs into precursors of nerve cells, and it is at this stage that the cells are most appropriate for insertion of MEF2C. Following this, we can transplant the stem cells, destined to become nerve cells, in to the brain in rodent models of stroke and Parkinson’s disease. We have also made very good progress in producing dopaminergic nerve cells, the specific type of cell that dies in Parkinson’s disease. In addition, our improved methods are completely free of any animal products, so they represent a step forward in developing cells as a treatment for human diseases. Building upon these advances in our techniques, we have transplanted cells into a rat model of Parkinson’s disease and shown that a large percentage of the cells become dopaminergic nerve cells in the brain. Additionally, rats receiving these cell transplants show greater improvements in motor skills compared to rats receiving similar cells without the inserted MEF2C factor. These findings complement our results presented in the first year’s progress report showing that transplantation of these MEF2C-expressing cells into a mouse model of stroke resulted in less damage to the brain. Together these results indicate the utility and versatility of these cells “programmed” by expression of the inserted MEF2C gene. Finally, in Year 02 we report on our efforts to discover the mechanism by which the MEF2C gene prevents cell death and drives stem cells to become nerve cells. We have performed microarray analyses, which measure the expression levels of various genes, e.g., how much of each protein is produced from a gene. This approach includes 24,000 of the possible ~30,000 gene sequences expressed in human cells and tissues. These experiments were performed on stem cells with the inserted MEF2C gene just as the cells were making the decision to become a nerve cell. We observed a decrease in the activity of several genes that are known to make stem cells proliferate (divide and multiply), rather than becoming a differentiated nerve cell. This finding is consistent with the known role of MEF2C, which causes cells to stop proliferating and start differentiating into nerve cells. Without insertion of MEF2C into the stem cells, they mostly continue proliferating. We also saw that many genes, which are not expressed in mature nerve cells, were coordinately down regulated. These results may suggest a new role of MEF2C as a factor for shutting down gene expression, thereby helping to promote the formation of new nerve cells. We are continuing our investigations into the mechanism of MEF2C actions in neuronal differentiation and function as well as our transplantation experiments in stroke and Parkinson’s disease models in the coming year.

Year 2

We initially discovered that mouse embryonic stem cell (ESC)-derived neural progenitor cells forced to express the transcription factor MEF2C were protected from dying and were also given signals to differentiate almost exclusively into neurons (J Neurosci 2008; 28:6557-68). Under the CIRM grant, we have investigated the role of MEF2C and consequences of its forced expression in neural differentiation of human ES cells, including identification of specific genes under MEF2C regulation. We have also used rodent models of Parkinson’s disease and stroke to evaluate the therapeutic potential of human ESC-derived neural progenitors forced to express active MEF2C (MEF2CA). In the third year of the CIRM grant, we continued to refine our procedures for differentiating MEF2CA-expressing human ES cells growing in culture into neural progenitor cells (NPC) and fully developed neurons. We also investigated their electrophysiological characteristics and potential to develop into specific types of neurons. We found that not only do the MEF2CA-expressing NPCs become almost exclusively neurons, as we previously showed, but they also had a strong bias to develop into dopaminergic neurons, the type of neuron that dies in Parkinson’s disease. We also found that MEF2CA-expressing NPCs differentiated to maturity in culture dishes showed a wide variety of electrophysiological responses of normal mature neurons. We were able to record sodium currents and action potentials indicating that the neurons were capable of transmitting chemo-electrical signals. They also responded to GABA and NMDA (a glutamate mimic), which shows that the neurons can respond to the major signal-transmitting molecules in the brain. Previously we showed that transplantation of the MEF2CA-expressing human ESC-derived NPCs into the brains of a rat model of Parkinson’s disease resulted in a much higher number of dopaminergic (DA) neurons and positive behavioral recovery compared to controls. We now report that evaluation of the MEF2CA-expressing cells showed a much higher expression level of a variety of proteins known to be important in DA neuron differentiation and that none of these cells become tumors or hyper proliferative. We have also transplanted NPCs into the brains of a rat stroke model. Our preliminary data analysis shows an improvement in the ability to walk a tapered beam in the rats transplanted with MEF2CA-expressing cells compared to controls. These results are evidence there may be a great advantage in the use of NPC expressing MEF2C for transplantation into various brain diseases and injuries. We have also continued our investigations into the mechanisms of MEF2C activities in the hope of finding new drug targets to mimic it effects. We have identified interactive pathways in which MEF2C plays a role and found correlations between MEF2C expression levels and a variety of diseases. These will hopefully lead us to a better understanding of how to leverage our results to produce effective therapies for a broad spectrum of neurological diseases and traumas.

Year 3

Our goals for this grant were to determine the role of the transcription factor MEF2C in neurogenesis, including all of the targets of this factor in the genome, use this knowledge to direct differentiation of human embryonic stem cells (hESC) into specific types of neurons, and investigate the transplantation of these cells into rodent models of Parkinson’s disease (PD) and stroke. During the tenure of this grant, we accomplished these goals to a very significant degree. Our investigations into the role of MEF2C in neurogenesis produced a large body of knowledge pertinent to its essential role in this process. This knowledge base was achieved through both monitoring expression levels of MEF2C during the entire process of neurogenesis and by knocking down its expression by use of siRNA. We now have a very detailed view of the temporal contribution of MEF2C as stem cells differentiate into neurons. Using this knowledge, we optimized a differentiation protocol for directing hESC into neuronal precursor cells and then initiated expression of a constitutively active MEF2 transcription factor (MEF2CA) via lentiviral technology. We discovered that the forced expression of MEF2CA provided a strong bias to neurons to differentiate along a dopaminergic (DA) lineage. Our network analysis for MEF2C confirmed that many of the known effector proteins for DA neurons are indeed targets for this transcription factor. Histological and electrophysiological investigations into the nature of these cells grown in vitro showed that they are indeed functional neurons displaying the anticipated qualities during the various stages of differentiation. Our in vivo transplantation studies have been equally productive. Owing to the strong tendency of the MEF2CA-expressing cells to differentiate into DA neurons, we first investigated their effects on a rat PD model where the dopaminergic cells of the substantia nigra are ablated on one side of the brain by injection of 6-hydroxydopamine. In response to an injection of the dopamine analog apomorphine, these rats will turn in a circle and the readout is the number of turns in a 30 minute period measured on a rotometer. Fewer turns indicate that the rat has less pathology, i.e., is getting better. We transplanted hESC-derived neural progenitor cells (hESC-NPC) either expressing MEF2CA or not and monitored recovery of the rats. While rats receiving both preparations of stem cells showed considerable improvement, the ones receiving MEF2C-expressing cells did significantly better on the rotometer. Also, histologically the MEF2CA-expressing cells could all be seen to differentiate, whereas those that did not express MEF2CA were often found in an undifferentiated state, which potentially posses a problem of continuing proliferation in the brain and tumor formation. Thus, the forced expression of MEF2CA forced the cells to differentiate and prevented uncontrolled cell division. An additional advantage was that the remaining endogenous DA neurons showed much greater density of fibers in the vicinity of the transplanted cells, suggesting that there was an additional benefit of factor secretion. Thus, the MEF2CA genetically modified cells appear to have significant advantages for transplantation for PD. We are also investigating the use of the MEF2CA-expressing hESC-NPC in rat and mouse models of stroke. Preliminary data shows that in both systems we see behavioral improvements following the transplantations with these cells. In the period of the no cost extension, we will complete these studies and characterize the types of neurons these transplanted cells become and their role in reversing the pathology caused by the brain ischemia from stroke. Our hypothesis is that there is a strong bias toward the DA neuron phenotype produced by the expression of MEF2CA, but that this is overridden by the context within the brain. Therefore, in a stroke model, the context of damage to the cortex provides signals to the newly transplanted cells that they should migrate to the damaged area and become cells appropriate to that region, not DA neurons. We will test this hypothesis in the remaining months of the grant.

Year 4

Our goals for this grant were to determine the role of the transcription factor MEF2C in neurogenesis, including all of the targets of this factor in the genome, use this knowledge to direct differentiation of human embryonic stem cells (hESC) into specific types of neurons, and investigate the transplantation of these cells into rodent models of Parkinson’s disease (PD) and stroke. During the tenure of this grant, we accomplished these goals to a very significant degree. Our investigations into the role of MEF2C in neurogenesis produced a large body of knowledge pertinent to its essential role in this process. This knowledge base was achieved through both monitoring expression levels of MEF2C during the entire process of neurogenesis and by knocking down its expression by use of siRNA. We now have a very detailed view of the temporal contribution of MEF2C as stem cells differentiate into neurons. Using this knowledge, we optimized a differentiation protocol for directing hESC into neuronal precursor cells and then initiated expression of a constitutively active MEF2 transcription factor (MEF2CA) via lentiviral technology. We discovered that the forced expression of MEF2CA provided a strong bias to neurons to differentiate along a dopaminergic (DA) lineage. Our network analysis for MEF2C confirmed that many of the known effector proteins for DA neurons are indeed targets for this transcription factor. Histological and electrophysiological investigations into the nature of these cells grown in vitro showed that they are indeed functional neurons displaying the anticipated qualities during the various stages of differentiation. Our in vivo transplantation studies have been equally productive. Owing to the strong tendency of the MEF2CA-expressing cells to differentiate into DA neurons, we first investigated their effects on a rat PD model where the dopaminergic cells of the substantia nigra are ablated on one side of the brain by injection of 6-hydroxydopamine. In response to an injection of the dopamine analog apomorphine, these rats will turn in a circle and the readout is the number of turns in a 30 minute period measured on a rotometer. Fewer turns indicate that the rat has less pathology, i.e., is getting better. We transplanted hESC-derived neural progenitor cells (hESC-NPC) either expressing MEF2CA or not and monitored recovery of the rats. While rats receiving both preparations of stem cells showed considerable improvement, the ones receiving MEF2C-expressing cells did significantly better on the rotometer. Also, histologically the MEF2CA-expressing cells could all be seen to differentiate, whereas those that did not express MEF2CA were often found in an undifferentiated state, which potentially posses a problem of continuing proliferation in the brain and tumor formation. Thus, the forced expression of MEF2CA forced the cells to differentiate and prevented uncontrolled cell division. An additional advantage was that the remaining endogenous DA neurons showed much greater density of fibers in the vicinity of the transplanted cells, suggesting that there was an additional benefit of factor secretion. Thus, the MEF2CA genetically modified cells appear to have significant advantages for transplantation for PD. We are also investigating the use of the MEF2CA-expressing hESC-NPC in rat and mouse models of stroke. Preliminary data shows that in both systems we see behavioral improvements following the transplantations with these cells. In the period of the no cost extension, we will complete these studies and characterize the types of neurons these transplanted cells become and their role in reversing the pathology caused by the brain ischemia from stroke. Our hypothesis is that there is a strong bias toward the DA neuron phenotype produced by the expression of MEF2CA, but that this is overridden by the context within the brain. Therefore, in a stroke model, the context of damage to the cortex provides signals to the newly transplanted cells that they should migrate to the damaged area and become cells appropriate to that region, not DA neurons. We will test this hypothesis in the remaining months of the grant.

© 2013 California Institute for Regenerative Medicine