Human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) are considered as a powerful tool for drug and chemical screening and development of new in vitro testing strategies in the field of toxicology, including neurotoxicity evaluation. These cells are able to expand and efficiently differentiate into different types of neuronal and glial cells as well as peripheral neurons. These human cells-based neuronal models serve as test systems for mechanistic studies on different pathways involved in neurotoxicity.
One of the well-known mechanisms that are activated by chemically-induced oxidative stress is the Nrf2 signaling pathway. Therefore, in the current study, we evaluated whether Nrf2 signaling machinery is expressed in human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs)-derived mixed neuronal/glial culture and if so whether it becomes activated by rotenone-induced oxidative stress mediated by complex I inhibition of mitochondrial respiration.
Rotenone was found to induce the activation of Nrf2 signaling particularly at the highest tested concentration (100 nM), as shown by Nrf2 nuclear translocation and the up-regulation of the Nrf2-downstream antioxidant enzymes, NQO1 and SRXN1. Interestingly, exposure to rotenone also increased the number of astroglial cells in which Nrf2 activation may play an important role in neuroprotection. Moreover, rotenone caused cell death of dopaminergic neurons since a decreased percentage of tyrosine hydroxylase (TH+) cells was observed. The obtained results suggest that hiPSC-derived mixed neuronal/glial culture could be a valuable in vitro human model for the establishment of neuronal specific assays in order to link Nrf2 pathway activation (biomarker of oxidative stress) with additional neuronal specific readouts that could be applied to in vitro neurotoxicity evaluation.