Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) affects over 5 million individuals in the U.S. and has a direct cost estimated in excess of $200 billion per year. Broadly speaking, there are two forms of AD—early-onset, familial AD (FAD) and late-onset-sporadic AD (SAD). Animal models of AD, which rely on the overexpression of FAD-related mutations, have provided important insights into the disease. However, these models do not display important disease-related pathologies and have been limited in their ability to model the complex genetics associated with SAD.
Advances in cellular reprogramming, have enabled the generation of in vitro disease models that can be used to dissect disease mechanisms and evaluate potential therapeutics. To that end, efforts by many groups, including the Brafman laboratory, to generated patient-specific hiPSCs have demonstrated the promise of studying AD in a simplified and accessible system. However, neurons generated from these hiPSCs have shown some, but not all, of the early molecular and cellular hallmarks associated with the disease. Additionally, phenotypes and pathological hallmarks associated with later stages of the human disease have not been observed with current hiPSC-based systems. Further, disease relevant phenotypes in neurons generated from SAD hiPSCs have been highly variable or largely absent. Finally, the reprogramming process erases phenotypes associated with cellular aging and, as a result, iPSC-derived neurons more closely resemble fetal brain rather than adult brain.
It is well-established that in vivo cells reside within a complex 3-D microenvironment that plays a significant role in regulating cell behavior. Signaling and other cellular functions, such as gene expression and differentiation potential, differ in 3-D cultures compared with 2-D substrates. Nonetheless, previous studies using AD hiPSCs have relied on 2-D neuronal culture models that do not reflect the 3-D complexity of native brain tissue, and therefore, are unable to replicate all aspects of AD pathogenesis. Further, the reprogramming process erases cellular aging phenotypes. To address these limitations, this project aimed to develop bioengineering methods for the generation of 3-D organoid-based cultures that mimic in vivo cortical tissue, and to generate an inducible gene repression system to recapitulate cellular aging hallmarks.