Interaction of Ataxin-1 and DNA repair proteins contributes to SCA1 disease onset and progression

Written by Dr. By Marija Cvetanovic Edited by Dr. Larissa Nitschke

Suart et al. show that Ataxin-1 interacts with an important DNA repair protein Ataxia telangiectasia mutated (ATM), and that reduction of ATM improves motor phenotype in the fruit fly model of SCA1, indicating DNA repair as an important modifier of SCA1 disease progression.

Each day, due to a combination of wear and tear from the normal processes in the cells, and environmental factors, such as irradiation, DNA in each of our cells can accumulate from 10,000 to 1,000,000 damages. If damaged DNA is left unrepaired, this can lead to loss of cell function, cell death, or a mutation that may facilitate the formation of tumors. To avoid these negative outcomes, cells take care of damaged DNA employing DNA damage response/repair proteins. Ataxia-telangiectasia mutated (ATM) protein is a critical part of DNA repair as it can recognize sites of DNA damage. It also helps recruit other proteins that repair DNA damage.

Mutations in the ATM gene cause autosomal recessive ataxia called Ataxia telangiectasia (AT). AT is characterized by the onset of ataxia in early childhood, prominent blood vessels (telangiectasia), immune deficiency, an increased rate of cancer, and features of early ageing.

An artist's drawing of four strands of DNA
DNA repair may be an important modifier of SCA1 disease progression. Photo used under license by Anusorn Nakdee/Shutterstock.com.

Expansion of CAG repeats in the Ataxin-1 gene causes dominantly inherited Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 1 (SCA1). A feature of SCA1 is that a greater number of repeats correlates to an earlier age of onset of symptoms and worse disease progression. The connection of DNA repair pathways and SCA1 was brought into focus in 2016 by a study by Bettencourt and colleagues. As longer CAG repeat tracts association with earlier ages at onset do not account for all of the difference in the age of onset authors searched for additional genetic modifying factors in a cohort of approximately 1000 patients with SCAs. They showed that DNA repair pathways significantly associate with the age at onset in SCAs, suggesting that genes with roles in the DNA damage response could provide new therapeutic targets (and hence therapeutics) in SCAs.

In this study, Suart et al. identify ATM as one such gene. Using irradiation and oxidizing agent to damage DNA and using imaging to follow ataxin-1 movement, authors first show that ataxin-1 is recruited to the site of DNA damage in cultured cells. They also demonstrate that SCA1 mutation slows down but does not prevent ataxin-1 recruitment to the sites of DNA damage.

Continue reading “Interaction of Ataxin-1 and DNA repair proteins contributes to SCA1 disease onset and progression”

Newly identified mutations in SCA19/22 and their dysfunctions

Written by Sophia Leung Edited by Dr. Marija Cvetanovic

While the mutant proteins in SCA19/22 lose part of their innate functions and properties, they also disrupt the key functions of the normal healthy protein.

The underlying mechanism of the hereditary property of SCA19/22 is elusive. In this study, the researchers investigated the molecular properties of four different mutations found in patients with SCA19/22. They looked at how these mutant proteins affect the normal protein if they are both present in the cell. They found that the mutant proteins are not only non-functional (do not work properly), but that in their presence, the normal protein’s function is also diminished. Furthermore, while the production and proper localization of these mutant proteins are found to be defective, they also bring the same decline to the normal protein. This adds to their disease-causing properties. This study is significant in that it offers a molecular investigation into mutant proteins associated with SCA19/22 that was previously lacking. It also provides evidence that may explain the hereditary property of the disease.

A number of mutations in the gene KCND3 has been associated with SCA19/22. The gene makes the voltage‐gated potassium ion (K+) channel subunit KV4.3. In general terms, the gene makes a protein that functions to allow potassium ions to pass through the membrane of nerve cells. Similar to how a flute has many holes to allow air to pass through when played to make a specific note, a nerve cell has different kinds of channels to allow ions to pass through their membrane to orchestrate normal functioning. One could imagine the disruption to any channels, a partial obstruction or a total blockage, could perturb the overall output of the cell.

flute resting on a music stand
Similar to how a flute has many holes to allow air to pass through when played to make a specific note, a nerve cell has different kinds of channels to allow ions to pass through to orchestrate normal functioning. (Photo by Rajesh Kavasseri / Unsplash)

In this study, the researchers found that the normal KV4.3 channel protein detectably allows potassium ions to pass through. But little to no ions can pass through the SCA19/22 mutant KV4.3 channels. Even under the assistance of a “helper” protein, which normally enhances the function of this channel, only one of the mutant channel proteins shows improvement. This indicates that the SCA19/22 causing mutations result in a reduced function of mutated KV4.3 channels.

Continue reading “Newly identified mutations in SCA19/22 and their dysfunctions”

Snapshot: What is Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF)?

Public transit may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think about the brain, but it’s a great way to understand how all the parts of the central nervous system work together. Nutrients, hormones, and other important molecules (the passengers) need to get on and off at different stations to do their work. They might first stop at the large internal chambers within the brain, called ventricles. From the ventricles, they can get to the central canal in the spinal cord, as well as the subarachnoid space. The subarachnoid space is a space between two membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. It provides a stable structure for a network of veins and arteries.

The passengers are shuttled from station to station by the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), a clear, colourless fluid that provides the central nervous system with necessary nutrients and hormones while carrying away waste products. CSF also cushions the brain and spinal cord by circulating between layers of tissues surrounding them. The whole public transit system is enclosed: the subarachnoid space and the ventricles are connected to the central canal in the spinal cord, forming a single reservoir for CSF.

Cerebrospinal fluid written in colorful letters under a Stethoscope on wooden background
Photo used under license by Sohel Parvez Haque/Shutterstock.com.

CSF is made by the choroid plexus, a collection of tiny blood vessels called capillaries. Capillaries filter the blood and secrete it into the ventricles. When the pressure of CSF is less than the pressure in the capillaries, CSF flows out and into the ventricles. When the pressure of CSF is greater than that of the bloodstream, the extra fluid is absorbed from the subarachnoid space and into sinuses (large areas filled with blood), where it can flow into the surrounding veins. The blood supply in the central nervous system tightly regulates the movement of molecules or cells between the blood and brain. This blood-brain barrier is crucial for protecting the brain from toxins and pathogens. Dysfunction of this specific system contributes to the development of neurological diseases.

Anatomical labeled scheme with human head and inside of skull, including superior sigittal sinus, ventricles, arachnoid Villi and spinal cord central canal.
Structure of the ventricles and central canal components that contribute to the public transit system. Photo used under license by VectorMine/Shutterstock.com.

Why is CSF Important for Neurodegenerative Diseases?

In neurodegenerative diseases like Spinocerebellar Ataxias, CSF contains molecules that can be used as biomarkers. Biomarkers are disease-specific proteins that change in concentration depending on disease stages. Biomarkers provide information on disease progression, with or without the impact of therapeutics. They are also crucial for understanding how disease processes work and assist in developing treatments.

The development of intrathecal injections, injecting into the central canal for distribution to the central nervous system (for example, spinal anesthesia), has been monumental for administering drugs in neurodegenerative diseases. In other words, not only can the public transit system of the central nervous system be investigated to see what passengers are associated with the disease, but it can be used to deliver “medicine passengers” to the place where the disease occurs.

If you would like to learn more about Cerebrospinal Fluid, take a look at these resources by MedlinePlus and WebMD.

Snapshot written by Kaitlyn Neuman and edited by Dr. Tamara Maiuri.

Evaluating the long-term safety of lentiviral gene therapy in SCA3 mice

Written by Dr. Ambika Tewari Edited by Dr. Hayley McLoughlin

Lentiviral expression of an shRNA against ataxin-3 was well-tolerated and produced no measurable adverse effects in wild-type mice.

Evaluating the safety profile is a necessary and crucial step in qualifying a therapy for use in patients. Gene therapy is an experimental technique that has demonstrated tremendous progress in the treatment or reversal of a disease, specifically monogenic disorders. Carefully investigating the safety and tolerance of gene therapy is important to gauge its suitability for clinical trials. Gene therapy tools can be used in different ways to achieve the same therapeutic effect: the faulty gene can be replaced with a healthy copy, the mutated gene can be repaired, or the mutant copy of the gene can be silenced. You can learn more about gene therapy in this pat SCAsource Snapshot.

Spinocerebellar ataxia type 3 (SCA3) or Machado-Joseph disease (MJD) causes progressive loss of neurons in the spinal cord, and several regions of the brain. This includes the cerebellum, brainstem, striatum and substantia nigra. These neurons have crucial functions. Without these neurons, patients experience motor incoordination, loss of balance, and in severe cases, premature death. While great progress continues to be made in understanding how a mutation in a single gene, Ataxin-3, causes the symptoms of SCA3, there is still no treatment to stop the disease progression. As a monogenic disorder, SCA3, like other Spinocerebellar ataxias (SCA), is a promising candidate for gene therapy. While there are no approved gene therapies for SCA yet, there any several research labs and companies working towards achieving this goal.

An artist's drawing of scientists standing infront of a giant piece of DNA and drugs
This is truly an exciting time for gene therapy, but it is also important to keep the safety of patients a top priority. Photo used under license by Visual Generation/Shutterstock.com.

The researchers in this study have been working on gene therapy for SCA3 since 2008. They have researched how gene therapy could offer protection against further decline, in several cell and mouse models of SCA3. They used an approach where they decreased the levels of the mutant Ataxin-3 gene while leaving the normal Ataxin-3 gene intact. This is known as allele-specific targeting. They demonstrated that using this technique, they could significantly reduce the behavioral and neuropathological changes that occur in SCA3 mice. Mice treated with the gene therapy showed improvements in their balance and motor coordination. 

Gene therapy in its most basic form involves two components, the gene that will replace or remove the diseased gene and a vector that will transport this new gene to its site of action. The most commonly used vectors today are adeno-associated virus (AAVs) followed by retrovirus. These viruses have been specifically engineered to deliver their passenger to the specified location. While both vectors have been through several years of preclinical and clinical testing for numerous gene therapy candidates, there are questions that remain regarding their safety. (1) Does the gene therapy product continue to be expressed in the targeted area long-term; (2) If there is long-term expression does it cause any adverse measurable effects to the targeted area; (3) Does the long-term expression affect the normal functioning of the targeted cells/organ.

Continue reading “Evaluating the long-term safety of lentiviral gene therapy in SCA3 mice”

Spotlight: The CMRR Ataxia Imaging Team

Location: University of Minnesota, MN, USA

Year Research Group Founded:  2008

What models and techniques do you use?

A photo of the CMRR Ataxia Imaging Team
A photo of the CMRR Ataxia Imaging Team in 2019. Front row, left to right – Diane Hutter, Christophe Lenglet (PI), Gulin Oz (PI), Katie Gundry, Jayashree Chandrasekaran Back row, left to right: Brian Hanna, James Joers, Pramod Pisharady, Kathryn France, Pierre-Gilles Henry (PI), Dinesh Deelchand, Young Woo Park, Isaac Adanyeguh (insert)

Research Group Focus

What shared research questions is your group investigating?

We use high field, multi-nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and spectroscopy (MRS) to explore how diseases impact the central nervous system. These changes can be structural, functional, biochemical and metabolic alterations. For example, we apply advanced MRI and MRS methods in neurodegenerative diseases and diabetes.

We also lead efforts in research taking place at multiple different cities across the United States and the world. As you can imagine, studies spread out across such a big area require a lot of coordination and standardization. We design robust MRI and MRS methods to be used in clinical settings like these.

Another important question for our team is how early microstructural, chemical and functional changes can be detected in the brain and spinal cord by these advanced MR methods. We are interested in looking at these changes across all stages of disease.

Why does your group do this research?

The methods we use (MRI and MRS) can provide very helpful information to be used in clinical trials. These biomarkers we look at can provide quantitative information about how a disease is progressing or changing.

There is good evidence that subtle changes in the brain can be detected by these advanced MR technologies even before patients start having symptoms. If we better understand the earliest changes that are happening in the brain, this can in turn enable interventions at a very early stage. For example, we could treat people even before brain degeneration starts to take place.

Why did you form a research group connecting multiple labs?

We came together to form the CMRR Ataxia Imaging Team to benefit from our shared and complementary expertise, experience, and personnel. We can do more together than we could apart.

Are you recruiting human participants for research?

Yes, we are! We are looking for participants for multiple different studies. You can learn more about the research we are recruiting for at the following links: READISCA,  TRACK-FA, NAF Studies, and FARA Studies. More information is also available through the UMN Ataxia Center.

A photo of the CMRR Ataxia Imaging Team in 2016
A photo of the CMRR Ataxia Imaging Team in 2016, in front of the historic 4T scanner where the first functional MR images were obtained, in CMRR courtyard. Left to right – Christophe Lenglet (PI), Sarah Larson, Gulin Oz (PI), Dinesh Deelchand, Pierre-Gilles Henry (PI), James Joers, Diane Hutter

What Labs Make Up the CMRR Ataxia Imaging Team?

The Oz Lab

Principal Investigator:  Dr. Gulin Oz

Year Founded:  2006

Our focus is on MR spectroscopy, specifically neurochemistry and metabolism studies. We focus on spinocerebellar ataxias. Also, we have been leading MRS technology harmonization across different sites and vendors.

The Henry Lab

Principal Investigator: Dr. Pierre-Gilles Henry

Year Founded:  2006

We develop advanced methods for MR spectroscopy and motion correction. Then apply these new methods to the study of biochemistry and metabolism in the brain and spinal cord in various diseases. We have been working on ataxias since 2014.

Fun Fact about the Henry Lab: The French language can often be heard in discussions in our lab!

The Lenglet Lab

Principal Investigator:  Dr. Christophe Lenglet

Year Founded:  2011

We develop mathematical and computational strategies for human brain and spinal cord connectivity mapping. We do this using high field MRI. Our research aims at better understanding the central nervous system anatomical and functional connectivity. We are especially interested in looking at this in the context of neurological and neurodegenerative diseases.

Fun Fact

Members of our team have their roots in 7 countries (US, Turkey, France, India, Mauritius, South Korea, Ghana) and 4 continents (North America, Europe, Asia, Africa)

For More Information, check out the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR) Website!


Written by Dr. Gulin Oz, Dr. Pierre-Gilles Henry, and Dr. Christophe Lenglet, Edited by Celeste Suart