Engineering and Characterization of an Optogenetic Model of the Human Neuromuscular Junction


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Many neuromuscular diseases, such as myasthenia gravis (MG), are associated with dysfunction of the neuromuscular junction (NMJ), which is difficult to characterize in animal models due to physiological differences between animals and humans. Tissue engineering offers opportunities to provide in vitro models of functional human NMJs that can be used to diagnose and investigate NMJ pathologies and test potential therapeutics. By incorporating optogenetic proteins into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), we generated neurons that can be stimulated with specific wavelengths of light. If the NMJ is healthy and functional, a neurochemical signal from the motoneuron results in muscle contraction. Through the integration of optogenetics and microfabrication with tissue engineering, we established an unbiased and automated methodology for characterizing NMJ function using video analysis. A standardized protocol was developed for NMJ formation, optical stimulation with simultaneous video recording, and video analysis of tissue contractility. Stimulation of optogenetic motoneurons by light to induce skeletal muscle contractions recapitulates human NMJ physiology and allows for repeated functional measurements of NMJ over time and in response to various inputs. We demonstrate this platform's ability to show functional improvements in neuromuscular connectivity over time and characterize the damaging effects of patient MG antibodies or neurotoxins on NMJ function.
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