Cell transdifferentiation of somatic cells directly into desirable cells has sprung up in recent years, which also has provided an alternative cell source for cell therapy in regenerative medicine, comparing with cell reprogramming. However, the conventional strategy for generating target cells through transdifferentiation was mainly based on viruses expressing exogenous transcription factors, which was unavoidably related with safety issues when translated into clinical application. Small molecules with more advantages in manipulating cell fate changes has attracted attentions of researchers in regenerative medicine. Especially the advent of chemically-induced pluripotent stem cells opens a new era of regeneration and later kindles the light of pursuing diverse chemical cocktails in generating different types of cells, which we refer to as chemical transdifferentition.
At this point, generation of neuronal cells leads the way so far, due to highly requirement of novel treatments for neurological diseases. We have used cocktail of VPA, CHIR99021, and Repsox (VCR) to convert mouse fibroblasts and human urinary cells into neural progenitor cells under hypoxia. Without hypoxia, Han et al. added more chemical compounds with VCR to generate neural stem cells from mouse fibroblasts, which includes VPA, CHIR99021, A83-01, BIX01294, RG108, PD0325901, and Vitamin C. Interestingly, Baharvand et al. induced human fibroblasts in suspension culture into neural progenitor cells only in the presence of 5-Aza. Based on our VCR induction protocol, Hu et al. added small molecules known to promote neural progenitor cell differentiation to directly convert normal and Alzheimer’s disease human fibroblasts into neuronal cells. The additional compounds are Forskolin, SP600125, GO6983, and Y-27632. Besides, functional neurons can also be induced from human fibroblasts by alternative recipe containing SB431542, CHIR99021, Forskolin, Pifithrin-α, LDN193189 and PD0325901. For initial cells from mouse, Li et al. demonstrated that cocktail of SB43152, CHIR99201, Forskolin, I-BET151, and ISX9 can induce mouse fibroblasts into TUJ1 positive neurons. For induction of more specific-subtype of neuron, Xu et al. cultured mouse fibroblasts in conditional medium from olfactory ensheathing cells with SB431542 and Retinoic acid, then generated GABAergic neurons.
All the above neural cell transdifferentiation reported so far was initiated mainly from fibroblasts both in mouse and human. Due to neural cells and fibroblasts belong to distinct germ layer ectoderm and mesoderm individually, generated neural cells often remain the epigenetic memory of starting fibroblasts, which indicates incomplete transformation between cells and also hurdles the clinical translation of these chemically induced cells. Considering the proximity in lineage distance among neuronal cells, astrocytes are one of the ideal starting candidate cell type for generating neural stem/progenitor cells or neurons. Recently, we found that combination of VPA and Repsox was able to convert mouse astrocytes into neuro blasts and neurons in vitro. Beyond that, Zhang et al. demonstrated that cultured human astrocytes can also be induced efficiently into functional neurons under sequential exposure to cocktail of SB431542, CHIR99021, VPA, LDN193189, DAPT, Tzv, TTNPB, SAG, and Purmo.