Background: There are no cures or efficacious treatments for severe motor neuron diseases. It is extremely difficult to obtain naïve spinal motor neurons (sMNs) from human tissues for research due to both technical and ethical reasons. Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are alternative sources. Several methods for MN differentiation have been reported. However, efficient production of naïve sMNs and culture cost were not taken into consideration in most of the methods.
Methods/principal findings: We aimed to establish protocols for efficient production and enrichment of sMNs derived from pluripotent stem cells. Nestin+ neural stem cell (NSC) clusters were induced by Noggin or a small molecule inhibitor of BMP signaling. After dissociation of NSC clusters, neurospheres were formed in a floating culture containing FGF2. The number of NSCs in neurospheres could be expanded more than 30-fold via several passages. More than 33% of HB9+ sMN progenitor cells were observed after differentiation of dissociated neurospheres by all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) and a Shh agonist for another week on monolayer culture. HB9+ sMN progenitor cells were enriched by gradient centrifugation up to 80% purity. These HB9+ cells differentiated into electrophysiologically functional cells and formed synapses with myotubes during a few weeks after ATRA/SAG treatment.
Conclusions and significance: The series of procedures we established here, namely neural induction, NSC expansion, sMN differentiation and sMN purification, can provide large quantities of naïve sMNs derived from human and monkey pluripotent stem cells. Using small molecule reagents, reduction of culture cost could be achieved.