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.

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Elongating expansions in HD and SCA1

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

Expanded CAG repeats are the cause of Huntington’s disease (HD) and several spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs). Longer inherited CAG expansions correlate with the earlier disease onset and worse symptoms. We know from past research that these expansions are unstable and become longer from one generation to the next.

This study by Mouro Pinto and colleagues shows that repeat expansions also keep getting longer throughout life in patients affected with HD and SCA1 in many cells, including brain, muscle, and liver cells.

Expansion of CAG repeats in different human genes cause several neurodegenerative diseases. This includes Huntington’s disease (HD) and several spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs). These long CAG repeats in disease genes tend to be unstable in the sperm and egg cells. This instability in sperm and egg cells can result in either longer repeat tracts (expansions) or shorter ones (contractions) in the children of affected patients. Unfortunately, CAG repeats more often expand than shrink. This results in a worse disease in the affected children, with earlier onset and more severe symptoms than their parents.

However, repeat instability and expansion of repeats are not confined to the sperm and egg cells. It can occur in many cells in a patient’s body. This ongoing expansion that occurs in other body cells is called somatic expansion.

Abstract background of DNA sequence
Long CAG repeats in disease genes can be unstable and expand. Photo used under license by Enzozo/Shutterstock.com.

As affected patients age, the ongoing somatic expansion, especially in the brain, may accelerate the onset of neuronal dysfunction and loss of neurons and. This may worsen the disease progression. This has been previously shown in mouse models and patients with HD. However, those studies examined expansion in only a few brain regions and tissues outside the brain (called peripheral tissues).

In this study lead by Dr. Vanessa C. Wheeler, the authors systematically examined repeat instability in 26 different regions of the brain, post-mortem cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and nine peripheral tissues, including testis and ovaries from seven patients with HD and one patient with SCA1.

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Failure to repair DNA damage may be linked to SCA3

Written by Dr. Ambika Tewari Edited by Dr. Maria do Carmo Costa

Mutations in Ataxin-3 protein prevent the normal functioning of a DNA repair enzyme leading to an accumulation of errors

Cells are bombarded by thousands of DNA damaging events each day from internal and external sources. Internal sources include routine processes that occur within cells that generate reactive byproducts, while external sources include ultraviolet radiation. This DNA damage can be detrimental to cells. But the coordination of many DNA repair proteins helps to maintain the integrity of the genome. This prevent the accumulation of mutations that can lead to cancer.

DNA repair proteins play very important roles in the nervous system. During development, cells are actively growing and dividing and can incur many errors during these processes. Therefore, it is not surprising that numerous DNA repair proteins are expressed in the mammalian brain to prevent the accumulation of DNA damage. To much DNA damage can produce devastating consequences.

Damaged DNA molecule
Ataxin-3 plays a role in a DNA repair pathway which fixes double-strand DNA break. If these breaks are not fixed, there are devastating consequences. Photo used under license by Rost9/Shutterstock.com.

In fact, DNA repair deficiencies usually result in profound nervous system dysfunction in humans. Examples include neurodegeneration, microcephaly and brain tumors. Altered DNA repair signaling has been implicated in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease. This implicates DNA repair proteins in genome maintenance in the nervous system. There are many different types of DNA damage and DNA repair. Each repair process has its own proteins and sequence of events that lead to either repair or cell death.

Ataxin-3 is known for its role in Spinocerebellar ataxia type 3 (SCA3), an autosomal dominant disorder caused by a repeat expansion in the ATXN3 gene. Symptoms are progressive and include prominent ataxia, impaired balance, spasticity and eye abnormalities. These symptoms are primarily a result of cerebellum dysfunction, but brainstem and spinal cord regions also show abnormalities in SCA3 patients. Recent studies have shown that ataxin-3 is part of a complex of proteins that repair single-strand DNA breaks. A crucial member of this complex, polynucleotide kinase 3’-phosphatase (PNKP), is actively involved in not only repairing single-strand but also double-strand breaks. Since the activity of PNKP is dependent on ataxin-3, this group of researchers were eager to investigate whether ataxin-3 also functioned in the repair of double-strand DNA damage.

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Spotlight: The Truant Lab

Truant lab logo of a brain. "Bright minds fixing sick brains"

Principal Investigator: Dr. Ray Truant

Location: McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

Year Founded: 1999

What disease areas do you research?

  • SCA1
  • SCA7
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Parkinson’s Disease

What models and techniques do you use?

  • Human cell biology
  • High content screening
  • Biophotonics
  • Microscopy

Research Focus

What is your research about?

We are looking into the role of oxidative DNA damage as a trigger to diseases like ataxia and neurodegeneration. We examine the roles of the disease proteins (ataxin-1, ataxin-7, etc,) and genes which modify or change disease that are involved with DNA damage repair.

Why do you do this research?

We are looking at what triggers the very first steps of disease. If we can understand this, we can design a treatment to stop it from happening in the first place.

Research team of 10 holding a sign which reads "We are Ataxia Aware"
Group picture of the Truant Laboratory celebrating International Ataxia Awareness Day 2019.

Fun Lab Fact

All our fridges in the laboratory are named after Game of Thrones characters! (We have several proud nerds in the lab)

For More Information, check out the Truant Lab Website!

We have an open lab notebook blog where our post-doctoral fellow Dr. Tam Maiuri post updates on her experiments in real-time! We plan to launch an ataxia open notebook in Winter 2021.


Written by Ray Truant, Edited by Celeste Suart

Snapshot: What is poly-ADP-ribose (PAR)?

DNA repair is an important topic when talking about of neurodegenerative disorders. The amount of biochemical stress the brain experiences increases naturally as we age. Some connections have been made between the amount of stresses on the brain and the age people develop neurodegenerative disorders.

Many of these natural stresses can damage DNA. For this reason, many researchers are trying to find ways of helping or fixing DNA repair. Chemicals that effect DNA repair could be used as new drugs. Here, we will focus on just one part of the DNA damage response that has been a great success in cancer drug discovery.

PAR is like a net that pulls in proteins that repair DNA

Poly-ADP-ribose, also called PAR, are long molecules in the cell. They are made of of the same building blocks cells use to store enegry. PARylation is when these long chains of PAR are made and attached to different parts of the cell. This happens in response to many different types of stress. For example, a stress could be if a cell’s DNA is damaged or it is infected with a virus.

When DNA damage happens, PAR molecules are attached on the surface of proteins and can act as a basket to trap other proteins. PAR is made and woven together by PAR polymerase proteins (called PARPs). PARPs add PAR chains all around a site of damage to let other parts of the cell know that damage has happened. This attracts DNA repair proteins to DNA damage by binding to PAR and performing their role to fix the damage.

a lage black fishing net on a white background, it is worn in some placed.
PAR can act like a fishing net that “catches” and pulls in proteins to help fix DNA damage. Image of a fishing net by Nikodem Nijaki on Wikimedia.
To much PAR causes cells to run out of energy

Even though PAR does a good job of signalling that DNA damage has happened, it takes a lot of energy to make. If the damage can not be fixed, the cell will keep trying to make PAR until runs out of energy. This can lead to PAR molecules causing cell death. This effect of too much PAR can be seen in multiple types of neurodegenerative diseases.

A type of cerebellar ataxia called AOA-XRCC1 is known for having higher levels of PAR due to DNA damage. When researchers reduced the amount of PAR in a mouse model of AOA-XRCC1, the mouse had fewer ataxia symptoms and lost fewer neurons. This type of ataxia is caused by a mutation in a protein called XRCC1, which normally helps fix DNA and binds to PAR chains. But in the disease, the XRCC1 gets stuck at DNA along with the long chains of PAR.

These findings may be applicable to other types of ataxia and neurodegenerative disorders because of their link to higher levels of DNA damage. A lot more work to be done on PARylation and its role in neurodegeneration. But a lot of research has been done on PAR in cancer. Many drugs have been FDA approved for cancer patients as safe and effective. Cancer and ataxia are very different diseases. But all the work that has previously been done has laid the groundwork for new research in neurodegeneration.

If you would like to learn more about poly-ADP-ribose , take a look at these resources by the National Cancer Institute and Cancer Research UK.

Snapshot written by Carlos Barba-Bazan and edited by Dr. Ray Truant

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