Pitx3, its role in lens development and application as a midbrain dopaminergic neuron reporter in embryonic stem cell differentiation
The homeobox gene Pitx3 has been implicated as a key regulator for lens development because homozygous mutant aphakia mice, which are hypomorph for Pitx3, fail to develop lenses. One aim of my thesis is to investigate the underlying cellular and molecular mechanism of Pitx3 mediated lens defect by studying knockout mice lacking Pitx3. Chimeric embryos, generated by aggregating the wild type embryos with Pitx3 heterozygous or Pitx3 homozygous mutant ES cells, have been used to analyse lens development. Pitx3 null cells failed to colonise the lens epithelium in Pitx3 null wild type chimeric lens, suggesting that Pitx3 is cell-autonomously required for lens epithelial cells. Further study of Pitx3 null mice revealed an earlier downregulation of the lens epithelial markers PDGFR-alpha and E-cadherin in E11.5 lens epithelium, suggesting the loss of lens epithelial identity in Pitx3 deficient mice. Furthermore, cell cycle inhibitors p27KIP1 and p57KIP2 were ectopically expressed throughout the morphologically normal Pitx3 mutant lens vesicle, suggesting that inactivation of Pitx3 leads to cell cycle exit of epithelial lens cells. In addition, precocious activation of the fibre cell-specific proteins beta- and gamma-crystallins was observed in Pitx3 null lens. Beta-crystallin expression could be observed as early as E10.5 throughout the entire Pitx3 null lens vesicle and gamma-crystallin was detected in the malformed Pitx3 deficient lens at E11.5. RNA in situ hybridisation study revealed that the expression of the transcription factor Foxe3 was lost in Pitx3 null lens at E10.5, suggesting that Pitx3 maintains the lens epithelial cells partly via the regulation of transcription factor Foxe3 during lens development. Accordingly, this study provides the cellular and molecular basis for the lens defect observed in Pitx3 null and Pitx3 hypomorph aphakia mice. Pitx3 is a key transcription factor for the maintenance of lens epithelium and its absence leads to premature activation of fibre cell differentiation programme of lens epithelial cells. In the other part of my PhD, I have further developed the Pitx3-GFP knockin ES cell system with a goal to use this tool for the identification of determinants of midbrain dopaminergic (mDA) neurons, the type of cells lost in Parkinson’s disease (PD) patients. Experimental cell therapy and clinical trials have shown that foetal midbrain tissues, but not tissues from other DA neuron containing regions, can functionally restore the lost mDA neurons when transplanted in Parkinson’s disease patients. Therefore, it is essential to coax mDA properties on stem cell-derived neurons when considering therapeutic development. Within the central nervous system, Pitx3 is expressed exclusively in mDA neurons. Using a Pitx3-GFP knockin mouse line previously generated in the laboratory I have derived heterozygous and homozygous Pitx3-GFP ES cells from mouse blastocysts. In keeping with previous findings in our laboratory, the heterozygous Pitx3-GFP (Pitx3GFP/+) ES cell-derived GFP positive cells of neuronal morphology can be detected after in vitro differentiation using the PA6 coculture system. Furthermore, I have shown that these cells express tyrosine hydroxylase and midbrain markers Engrailed-1 and Nurr-1, demonstrating their midbrain characteristics. I have also generated supertransfectable Pitx3GFP/+ ES cells to offer a rapid and efficient way to express a transgene episomally. The Cre-mediated inducible system of Pitx3-GFP reporter ES cells has also been developed in our laboratory and I have shown that they have high induction efficiency thus allows transgene activation in a temporally controlled manner. The Pitx3 null ES cells showed impaired potential to differentiate into mDA neurons thus they may be used to evaluate candidate Pitx3 downstream target by gain-of-function test. In summary, I have developed a Pitx3-GFP reporter ES cell system to identify mDA regulators functionally by in vitro differentiation.