This piece originally appeared on the CIRM Stem Cellar Blog.

Understanding a complicated neurodegenerative disorder like Parkinson’s disease (PD) is no easy task. While there are known genetic risk factors that cause PD, only about 10 percent of cases are linked to a genetic cause. The majority of patients suffer from the sporadic form of PD, where the causes are unknown but thought to be a combination of environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for PD, and current treatments only help PD patients manage the symptoms of their disease and inevitably lose their effectiveness over time. Another troubling issue is that doctors and scientists don’t have good ways to predict who is at risk for PD, which closes an important window of opportunity for delaying the onset of this devastating disease.

Scientists have long sought relevant disease models that mimic the complicated pathological processes that occur in PD. Current animal models have failed to truly represent what is going on in PD patients. But the field of Parkinson’s research is not giving up, and scientists continue to develop new and improved tools, many of them based on human stem cells, to study how and why this disease happens.

New Stem Cell Tools for Parkinson’s

Speaking of new tools, scientists from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging published a study that generated 10 induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS cell) lines derived from PD patients carrying well known genetic mutations linked to PD. These patient cell lines will be a useful resource for studying the underlying causes of PD and for potentially identifying therapeutics that prevent or treat this disorder. The study was partly funded by CIRM and was published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

Xianmin Zeng

Xianmin Zeng

Dr. Xianmin Zeng, the senior author on the study and Associate Professor at Buck Institute, developed these disease cell lines as tools for the larger research community to use. She explained in a news release:

“We think this is the largest collection of patient-derived lines generated at an academic institute. We believe the [iPS cell] lines and the datasets we have generated from them will be a valuable resource for use in modeling PD and for the development of new therapeutics.”

The datasets she mentions are part of a large genomic analysis that was conducted on the 10 patient stem cell lines carrying common PD mutations in the SNCA, PARK2, LRRK2, or GBA genes as well as control stem cell lines derived from healthy patients of the same age. Their goal was to identify changes in gene expression in the Parkinson’s stem cell lines as they matured into the disease-affected nerve cells of the brain that could yield clues into how PD develops at the molecular level.

Dopaminergic neurons derived from iPS cells. (Xianmin Zeng)

Dopaminergic neurons derived from iPS cells. (Xianmin Zeng)

Using previous methods developed in her lab, Dr. Zeng coaxed the iPS cell lines into neural stem cells (brain stem cells) and then further into dopaminergic neurons – the nerve cells that are specifically affected and die off in Parkinson’s patients. Eight of the ten patient lines were able to generate neural stem cells, and all of the neural stem cell lines could be coaxed into dopaminergic neurons – however, some lines were better at making dopaminergic neurons than others.

When they analyzed these lines, surprisingly they found that the overall gene expression patterns were similar between diseased and healthy cell lines no matter what cell stage they were at (iPS cells, neural stem cells, and neurons). They next stressed the cells by treating them with a drug called MPTP that is known to cause Parkinson’s like symptoms in humans. MPTP treatment of dopaminergic neurons derived from PD patient iPS cell lines did cause changes in gene expression specifically related to mitochondrial function and death, but these changes were also seen in the healthy dopaminergic neurons.

Parkinson’s, It’s complicated…

These interesting findings led the authors to conclude that while their new stem cell tools certainly display some features of PD, individually they are not sufficient to truly model all aspects of PD because they represent a monogenic (caused by a single mutation) form of the disease.

They explain in their conclusion that the power of their PD patient iPS cell lines will be achieved when combined with additional patient lines, better controls, and more focused data analysis:

“Our studies suggest that using single iPSC lines for drug screens in a monogenic disorder with a well-characterized phenotype may not be sufficient to determine causality and mechanism of action due to the inherent variability of biological systems. Developing a database to increase the number of [iPS cell] lines, stressing the system, using isogenic controls [meaning the lines have identical genes], and using more focused strategies for analyzing large scale data sets would reduce the impact of line-to-line variations and may provide important clues to the etiology of PD.”

Brian Kennedy, Buck Institute President and CEO, also pointed out the larger implications of this study by commenting on how these stem cell tools could be used to identify potential drugs that specifically target certain Parkinson’s mutations:

Brian Kennedy

Brian Kennedy

“This work combined with dozens of other control, isogenic and reporter iPSC lines developed by Dr. Zeng will enable researchers to model PD in a dish. Her work, which we are extremely proud of, will help researchers dissect how genes interact with each other to cause PD, and assist scientists to better understand what experimental drugs are doing at the molecular level to decide what drugs to use based on mutations.”

Overall, what inspires me about this study is the author’s mission to provide a substantial number of PD patient stem cell lines and genomic analysis data to the research community. Hopefully their efforts will inspire other scientists to add more stem cell tools to the Parkinson’s tool box. As the saying goes, “it takes an army to move a mountain”, in the case of curing PD, the mountain seems more like Everest, and we need all the tools we can get.