A Stem Cell-Based Screening Platform Identifies Compounds that Desensitize Motor Neurons to Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress

Sebastian Thams, Emily Rhodes Lowry, Marie Hélène Larraufie, Krista J. Spiller, Hai Li, Damian J. Williams, Phuong Hoang, Elise Jiang, Luis A. Williams, Jackson Sandoe, Kevin Eggan, Ivo Lieberam, Kevin C. Kanning, Brent R. Stockwell, Christopher E. Henderson, Hynek Wichterle*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a neurodegenerative disease selectively targeting motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. The reasons for differential motor neuron susceptibility remain elusive. We developed a stem cell-based motor neuron assay to study cell-autonomous mechanisms causing motor neuron degeneration, with implications for ALS. A small-molecule screen identified cyclopiazonic acid (CPA) as a stressor to which stem cell-derived motor neurons were more sensitive than interneurons. CPA induced endoplasmic reticulum stress and the unfolded protein response. Furthermore, CPA resulted in an accelerated degeneration of motor neurons expressing human superoxide dismutase 1 (hSOD1) carrying the ALS-causing G93A mutation, compared to motor neurons expressing wild-type hSOD1. A secondary screen identified compounds that alleviated CPA-mediated motor neuron degeneration: three kinase inhibitors and tauroursodeoxycholic acid (TUDCA), a bile acid derivative. The neuroprotective effects of these compounds were validated in human stem cell-derived motor neurons carrying a mutated SOD1 allele (hSOD1A4V). Moreover, we found that the administration of TUDCA in an hSOD1G93A mouse model of ALS reduced muscle denervation. Jointly, these results provide insights into the mechanisms contributing to the preferential susceptibility of ALS motor neurons, and they demonstrate the utility of stem cell-derived motor neurons for the discovery of new neuroprotective compounds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)87-101
Number of pages15
JournalMolecular Therapy
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2019


  • ALS
  • cyclopiazonic acid
  • ER stress
  • motor neuron
  • stem cell


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