Mutated ataxin-1 protein forms harmful, doughnut-shaped aggregates that are not easily destroyed

Written by Brenda Toscano Marquez   Edited by Marija Cvetanovic

Insoluble clumps of mutated ataxin-1 capture essential proteins and trigger the creation of toxic reactive oxygen species.

All proteins produced by our cells consist of long chains of amino acids that are coiled and bent into a particular 3D structure. Changes in that structure can cause serious issues in a cell’s function, sometimes resulting in disease. Spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) is thought to be the result of one such structural change. The cause of SCA1 is a mutation that makes a repeating section of the ATXIN1 gene abnormally long. This repeated genetic code, “CAG,” is what encodes the amino acid glutamine in the resulting ataxin-1 protein. Therefore, in the cells of patients with SCA1, the Ataxin-1 protein is produced with an expanded string of glutamines, one after the other. This polyglutamine expansion makes the mutated ataxin-1 protein form clumps in many different types of cells – most notably, though, in the cells most affected in SCA1: the brain’s Purkinje cells.

Recent research suggests that these clumps, or “aggregates,” not only take up space in the cell, but that the act of ataxin-1 proteins clustering together might even be beneficial in early stages of disease (it’s possible that the proteins wreak less havoc when they’re in large clumps, rather than all floating around individually). However, another line of research suggests that ataxin-1 aggregates might also be toxic, triggering signals that lead to the cell’s death. As such, how exactly these aggregates affect the deterioration of cells has remained an important question in SCA1 research.

n a search for answers, an international team led by Stamatia Laidou designed a unique cell model of SCA1 to track the development of ataxin-1 aggregates. Their study, published in a recent paper, made use of normal human mesenchymal stem cells that had been engineered to make a modified version of the ataxin-1 protein. In these cells, ataxin-1 was produced not only with the SCA1-causing expansion, but also with a marker protein attached to its end. This marker, known as “green fluorescent protein” (GFP), is used extensively in biological research because it glows under fluorescent light.

doughnut with white and pink sprinkles
Laidou and colleagues have observed mutated ataxin-1 clumps that cause cell stress. Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

Using this to their advantage, Laidou and her team used a fluorescent microscope to follow the formation of ataxin-1 aggregates over the course of 10 days. The abnormal protein first started accumulating in the nucleus as small dots. As time went on, these dots started blending together, increasing in size. By ten days, the ataxin-1 aggregates had grown even more, forming a doughnut-shaped structure that occupied most of the cell’s nucleus – a crucial structure that houses the cell’s genetic information. These results were intriguing, since the accumulation of normal, non-expanded Ataxin-1 protein does not result in an aggregate with a doughnut shape.

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Fishing for a solution to SCA38 – are omega-3 fatty acids the key to symptom relief?

Written by Dr. Siddharth Nath Edited by Dr. Sriram Jayabal

SCA38 results in a deficiency of an omega-3-fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Scientists from Italy had shown previously that short-term DHA supplementation reduces disease symptoms. Now, new research from the same group finds that this impact continues with long-term DHA supplementation.

What is SCA38?

One of the rarer forms of ataxia, SCA38 is an autosomal dominant SCA that occurs as a result of mutations in the ELOVL5 gene. This gene contains the recipe for the protein called elongase. It is responsible for building long-chain fatty acids in the brain, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a process key for normal cellular function. Importantly, this protein is found mostly in Purkinje cells, a special type of neuron found within the cerebellum of the brain.

In SCA38, mutant elongase is found primarily in a part of the cell called the Golgi apparatus, which is responsible for packaging proteins and finalizing production, similar to a quality-control technician in an assembly line. Normally, elongase is found at the endoplasmic reticulum, which is further up the assembly line, more akin to the fabrication section.

This mislocation of the protein may explain why it is unable to produce sufficient amounts of long-chain fatty acids to support healthy Purkinje cell function. Deficiencies in DHA resulting from mutations in elongase are detectable by blood tests.

spilled bottle of yellow capsule pills
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Docosahexa-what?

You’ve probably heard of omega-3-fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are part of a larger group of molecules called polyunsaturated fatty acids to which the omega-6 fatty acids also belong. DHA is a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids are often touted as a key component of a healthy diet.

Omega-3-fatty acids are important building blocks of the cellular membrane, which is part of all cells in the body. Humans aren’t able to make omega-3-fatty acids ourselves, we need to get them from our diet. That is why many food guides have recommended intakes of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids from oily fish and nuts. Vegetarians can also supplement their diet with flaxseed or algae capsules to get these fatty acids in their diet.

DHA is just one of many omega-3-fatty acids and it is most prevalent in the membranes of brain cells, where it plays a key role in normal brain function. Thus, when there is a disturbance or deficiency in the level of DHA, we can expect brain function to become impaired, as is the case in SCA38.

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Sunrise of Gene Therapy for Friedreich’s Ataxia

Written by Dr. Marija Cvetanovic   Edited by Dr. Ronald Buijsen

Researchers from the University of California show they can “edit” the Frataxin gene in human cells from Friedreich’s Ataxia and transplant them into mice. This lays the groundwork for this method to be tested for safety.

Friedreich’s ataxia is a progressive, neurodegenerative movement disorder. It is often associated with heart issues and diabetes. Symptoms first start to appear in patients when they are around 10 to 15 years old. Friedreich’s ataxia has the prevalence of approximately 1 in 40,000 people and is inherited in a recessive manner. This means that patients with Friedreich’s ataxia inherited a disease gene from both the father and mother. Friedreich’s ataxia is caused by an overexpansion of the GAA repeat in the Frataxin gene, all these extra repeats causes less Frataxin protein to be made.

Human hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs) are the stem cells that give make to other types of blood cells. You can find HSPCs in the blood all around the body.

HSPCs are ideal candidates for use in stem cell therapy because of a few reasons. First, you can easily get them out of the body through a blood donation (at least easier than some other types of cells!). Second, they can self-renew, meaning they will make more of themselves. Third, other folks have researched this type of cell before, so we know they are fairly safe. Researchers wanted to test if these cells could be used to help treat Friedreich’s ataxia.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a customizable tool that lets scientists cut and insert small pieces of DNA at precise areas along a DNA strand. The tool is composed of two basic parts: the Cas9 protein, which acts like the wrench, and the specific RNA guides, CRISPRs, which act as the set of different socket heads. These guides direct the Cas9 protein to the correct gene, or area on the DNA strand, that controls a particular trait. This lets scientists study our genes in a specific, targeted way and in real-time.
Researchers used CRISPR editing to fix the mutation causing Friedreich’s ataxia in patient blood cells. Photo Credit: Ernesto del Aguila III, National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health
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Repeat interruptions are associated with epileptic seizures in SCA10

Written by Dr Hannah Shorrock  Edited by Larissa Nitschke

Repeat interruptions in SCA10 influence repeat tract stability and are associated with epileptic seizures

Multiple spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs) are caused by repeat expansion mutations, but in some cases, these repeat expansions are interrupted. The presence of repeat interruptions can influence disease symptoms and how the repeat expansion behaves. This is the case for SCA10. Some patients with SCA10 have a series of repeat interruptions, which are referred to as an ATCCT repeat interruption motif. In SCA10 patients with this interruption motif, Dr. Ashizawa and his team found an increased risk of developing epileptic seizures and identified that the interruptions influence the local stability of the repeat expansion.

A cartoon of a DNA molecule with light radiating from it
Small interruptions in the ATXN10 gene may affect the likelihood of SCA10 patients developing epileptic seizures

SCA10 is a dominantly inherited ataxia caused by an ATTCT repeat expansion in the Ataxin 10 gene (ATXN10). Unaffected individuals usually carry 9-32 ATTCT repeats, while SCA10 patients carry an expansion of up to 4500 repeats. SCA10 patients suffer from cerebellar ataxia, but some patients also have other symptoms, including epileptic seizures. Dr. Ashizawa and his team were interested in why some patients with SCA10 suffer from epileptic seizures, but others do not.

Initially, the group investigated whether the length of the ATXN10 repeat expansion correlated with epileptic seizures. They found no difference in repeat length between 37 SCA10 patients who developed epilepsy and 51 who did not. This shows that repeat length does not influence whether or not SCA10 patients develop epileptic seizures.

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Targeting protein degradation to alleviate symptoms in MJD

Written by Ambika Tewari   Edited by Brenda Toscano Márquez

Trehalose, a natural autophagy inducer shows promise as a therapeutic candidate for MJD/SCA3

Every cell has an elaborate set of surveillance mechanisms to ensure optimal functioning. As proteins are synthesized, errors can occur leading to misfolded proteins. These abnormal proteins can be harmful to the cell. For this reasons it is important to monitortheir occurrence and decide whether they should be degraded.  Autophagy is one way that these misfolded proteins can be degraded. Autophagy literally means self-eating and serves as a quality control mechanism. Defects in autophagy have been linked to several neurodegenerative disorders.

Machado-Joseph disease (MJD) or spinocerebellar ataxia type 3 is caused by an abnormal expanded CAG repeat in the ATXN3 gene. This CAG expansion causes misfolding of the ataxin-3 protein. The now unstable ataxin-3 is prone to forming aggregates in cells of some regions of the brain including the cerebellum, brainstem and basal ganglia. The accumulation of ataxin-3 in the cell leads to the progressive loss of neurons in the affected brain regions.

Normal ataxin-1 proteins becomes misfolded due to CAG expansion, but autophagy with proteins LC3B and Beclin-1 should degrade and break down misfolded ataxin-3
A diagram of how autophagy should break down abnormal expanded ataxin-3. But what happens when this break down doesn’t happen? Diagram by  Ambika Tewari using BioRender.

Researchers, eager to help patients with MJD, began to question why would the cellular surveillance system allow this toxic accumulation of misfolded ataxin-3. Surely there are mechanisms, like autophagy, to prevent this from occurring. This led to a number of studies that found that autophagy is defective in MJD patients. This was also confirmed in different mouse and cell models of MJD. In fact, earlier studies by the lab of Dr. Luís Pereira de Almeida found that increasing the amount of an autophagy protein (beclin-1) in the brain of an MJD mouse model improved some of the behavioral and neuropathological deficits. Together, these studies have provided evidence that autophagy may serve as a therapeutic target for MJD.

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