High-throughput screening identifies histone deacetylase inhibitors that modulate GTF2I expression in 7q11.23 microduplication autism spectrum disorder patient-derived cortical neurons
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a highly prevalent neurodevelopmental condition affecting almost 1% of children, and represents a major unmet medical need with no effective drug treatment available. Duplication at 7q11.23 (7Dup), encompassing 26–28 genes, is one of the best characterized ASD-causing copy number variations and offers unique translational opportunities, because the hemideletion of the same interval causes Williams–Beuren syndrome (WBS), a condition defined by hypersociability and language strengths, thereby providing a unique reference to validate treatments for the ASD symptoms. In the above-indicated interval at 7q11.23, defined as WBS critical region, several genes, such as GTF2I, BAZ1B, CLIP2 and EIF4H, emerged as critical for their role in the pathogenesis of WBS and 7Dup both from mouse models and human studies.
We performed a high-throughput screening of 1478 compounds, including central nervous system agents, epigenetic modulators and experimental substances, on patient-derived cortical glutamatergic neurons differentiated from our cohort of induced pluripotent stem cell lines (iPSCs), monitoring the transcriptional modulation of WBS interval genes, with a special focus on GTF2I, in light of its overriding pathogenic role. The hits identified were validated by measuring gene expression by qRT-PCR and the results were confirmed by western blotting.
We identified and selected three histone deacetylase inhibitors (HDACi) that decreased the abnormal expression level of GTF2I in 7Dup cortical glutamatergic neurons differentiated from four genetically different iPSC lines. We confirmed this effect also at the protein level.
In this study, we did not address the molecular mechanisms whereby HDAC inhibitors act on GTF2I. The lead compounds identified will now need to be advanced to further testing in additional models, including patient-derived brain organoids and mouse models recapitulating the gene imbalances of the 7q11.23 microduplication, in order to validate their efficacy in rescuing phenotypes across multiple functional layers within a translational pipeline towards clinical use.