Clearing aggregated ataxin-2 protein as a therapeutic avenue for SCA2

Written by Dr. Vitaliy Bondar Edited by Dr. Hayley McLoughlin

New research suggests that mutant ataxin-2 protein overwhelms cells in SCA2, leading to decreased autophagy and clearance of damaged proteins.

Many comparisons can be made between cells and human beings. Just like humans, cells can accumulate junk and waste at certain times and this clutter overtime becomes problematic and even toxic. This is precisely what Jonathan Henry Wardman and colleagues from the University of Copenhagen decided to investigate on a cellular level. They asked whether the lack of appropriate clearance of faulty disease proteins effect cellular survival and wellbeing.

The researchers chose to study cells derived from a patient that has Spinocerebellar ataxia type 2 (SCA2). The cause of SCA2 is CAG repeat expansion in the ATAXIN-2 gene, which encodes polyglutamine amino acid chain in an RNA-binding protein, ataxin-2. The faulty polyQ expanded ATXN2 protein is found to aggregate inside the cell and overtime can affect its survival. Accumulation of aggregated protein products derived from mutated genes is a hallmark of many types of spinocerebellar ataxias as well as other forms of neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

It is unclear how protein aggregation impacts cellular survival. However, multiple cellular defects have been correlated with ataxin-2 aggregation. For instance, mitochondria which generates energy for a cell, has been reported to abnormally function in SCA2 cellular models. Additionally, a cellular clearance mechanism, called autophagy, which is responsible for clearing faulty cellular compartments and certain broken proteins is shown to be less effective in various SCA2 models. These mechanisms the authors decided to investigate in their recently published research article.

scientist using microscope
New research using SCA2 cells sheds light on what causes disease symptoms to occur. Photo by Chokniti Khongchum on Pexels.com

The scientists first identified evidence of SCA2 cellular dysfunction through detection of significant elevation of caspase-9 and caspase-8 levels. These are protein which indicate cellular stress and death. The authors hypothesized that such cellular dysfunction may arise from accumulation of faulty ataxin-2. In order to test this hypothesis, they decided to systematically block two cellular pathways that process defective proteins: proteostasis and autophagy.

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