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Motor neuron generation from stem cells: improving efficiency
Efficient and quick generation of human motor neurons from stem cells is a matter of careful timing of addition of critical signalling molecules to the stem cells. Bringing forward the addition of signalling molecules from six days to three days increases the rapidity of recovery of motor neurons to 20 days compared to 40 to 50 days and the proportion of motor neurons to 70% from 20-30%. These are the findings of a new study from researchers in the University of Illinois in the USA and the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College. The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Defects in motor neurons cause the devastating group of motor neuron diseases. These include the most common human form, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), as well as primary lateral sclerosis, progressive muscular atrophy and progressive bulbar palsy. Essential voluntary muscle activity such as speaking, walking, breathing, and swallowing is adversely affected. Therefore, research on how stem cells develop into motor neurons is essential to gain insight into motor neuron disease processes. Methods for improving speed and efficiency of motor neuron generation are vital to improve tools for prospective drug screening and ultimately generate cells for therapeutic use.

Previous studies on generation of motor neurons from stem cells featured addition of two important signalling molecules at Day 6, i.e. 6 days after exposure to cells to a previously discovered molecule called compound C which converts stem cells into “neural progenitor cells. The simple but critical innovation in this study was to push back the addition of these signalling molecules to Day 3 after compound C addition. This resulted in the much more rapid and efficient differentiation of neural progenitor cells to motor neurons. The authors explain that Day 3 therefore represents a previously unrecognised neural progenitor cell stage. As a result of the study, the researchers identified a protein called Islet-1 as crucial for formation of mature and functional human motor neurons.

Senior author Dr Fei Wang of the University of Illinois concluded: “To have a rapid, efficient way to generate motor neurons will undoubtedly be crucial to studying – and potentially also treating – spinal cord injuries and diseases like ALS.”


Qu, Q., Li, D., Louis, K. R., Li, X., Yang, H., Sun, Q., Crandall, S. R., Tsang, S., Zhou, J., Cox, C. L., Cheng, J., and Wang, F. (2014). High-efficiency motor neuron differentiation from human pluripotent stem cells and the function of islet-1. Nature Communications, 5; doi:10.1038/ncomms4449

Press release: University of Illinois; available from: [Accessed 2 April 2014]. [Accessed 2 April 2014].
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