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Efficient and rapid conversion of human astrocytes and ALS mouse model spinal cord astrocytes into motor neuron-like cells by defined small molecules

  • Zhao, An-Dong1, 2
  • Qin, Hua2, 3
  • Sun, Meng-Li2, 3
  • Ma, Kui2, 3
  • Fu, Xiao-Bing2, 3, 4
  • 1 Tianjin Medical University, Tianjin, 300070, China , Tianjin (China)
  • 2 PLA General Hospital and PLA Medical College, 28 Fu Xing Road, Haidian District, Beijing, 100853, P. R. China , Beijing (China)
  • 3 PLA Key Laboratory of Tissue Repair and Regenerative Medicine and Beijing Key Research Laboratory of Skin Injury, Repair and Regeneration, Beijing, 100048, China , Beijing (China)
  • 4 Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, Beijing, 100048, China , Beijing (China)
Published Article
Military Medical Research
Springer Nature
Publication Date
Sep 06, 2020
DOI: 10.1186/s40779-020-00271-7
Springer Nature


BackgroundMotor neuron degeneration or loss in the spinal cord is the characteristic phenotype of motor neuron diseases or spinal cord injuries. Being proliferative and located near neurons, astrocytes are considered ideal cell sources for regenerating neurons.MethodsWe selected and tested different combinations of the small molecules for inducing the conversion of human and mouse astrocytes into neurons. Microscopic imaging and immunocytochemistry analyses were used to characterize the morphology and phenotype of the induced neurons while RT-qPCR was utilized to analyze changes in gene expression. In addition, whole-cell patch-clamp recordings were measured to examine the electrophysiological properties of induced neurons.ResultsThe results showed that human astrocytes could be rapidly and efficiently converted into motor neuron-like cells by treatment with defined small molecules, with a yield of over 85% motor neuron-like cells attained. The induced motor neuron-like cells expressed the pan-neuronal markers TUJ1, MAP2, NeuN, and Synapsin 1 and motor neuron markers HB9, ISL1, CHAT, and VAChT. During the conversion process, the cells did not pass through a proliferative neural progenitor cell intermediate. The induced motor neurons were functional, showing the electrophysiological properties of neurons. The same chemical cocktail could induce spinal cord astrocytes from an amyotrophic lateral sclerosis mouse model carrying a SOD1 mutation to become motor neuron-like cells that exhibited a decrease in cell survival and an increase in oxidative stress compared to that observed in wild-type MNs derived from healthy mice. Moreover, the chemical induction reduced oxidative stress in the mutant astrocytes.ConclusionThe results of the present study demonstrated the feasibility of chemically converting human and mouse astrocytes into motor neuron-like cells that are useful for neurodegenerative disease modeling and regenerative medicine.

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