Two or more birds with one stone: Designing a single therapeutic strategy to treat multiple types of spinocerebellar ataxia

Written by Dr. David Bushart Edited by Dr. Hayley McLoughlin

A newly-proposed treatment strategy might be effective against several forms of spinocerebellar ataxia and other CAG repeat-associated disorders

Upon receiving an initial diagnosis of spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA), a swarm of questions might enter a patient’s mind. Many of these questions will likely revolve around how to manage and treat their disease. What treatments are currently available to treat SCA? What can I do to reduce symptoms? Does SCA have a cure, and if not, are researchers close to finding one? Patients and family members who read SCASource may be able to answer some of these questions. Although scientists are aware of some of the underlying genetic causes of SCA, and patients can benefit greatly from exercise and physical therapy, there are unfortunately no current drug therapies that can effectively treat these diseases. However, this is a very exciting time in SCA research, since researchers are hard at work developing new treatment strategies for several of the most common SCAs. Many of these newly proposed therapies are specialized to treat a specific genetic subtype of SCA (e.g. SCA1, SCA3, etc.), which would allow these therapies to be very specific. However, these specialized efforts beg another question: would it be possible to treat different types of SCA with the same therapeutic strategy?

sketch of a human brain and spinal cord across a blue background
Artist’s sketch of a human brain. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

This is precisely what researchers wished to determine in a recent study, authored by Eleni Kourkouta and colleagues. This group of researchers used a technology called antisense oligonucleotides (often abbreviated ASO, or AON), to ask whether a single ASO could be used to treat multiple neurological disorders that have different underlying causes. Currently, most ASO technology depends on our ability to selectively target specific disease-causing genes, which allows the ASO to only recognize and act on the specific gene that is causing ataxia. Once recognized, these ASOs can recruit cellular machinery that lowers RNA levels of the disease-causing gene, thereby greatly limiting the amount of disease-causing protein that is produced (learn more in our What is RNA? Snapshot). This strategy has the potential to be very effective for treating SCAs that are associated with polyglutamine (polyQ) expansion (learn more in our What is Gene Therapy? Snapshot).

However, the type of ASO technology described above is not the only way to reduce levels of the disease-causing proteins in SCA. In this paper, Kourkouta and colleagues use a different type of ASO with a different mechanism of action, which also lowers levels of the disease-causing protein in two different SCAs.

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New Strategy for Reducing Ataxin-1 Levels Shows Promise

Written by Carrie A. Sheeler Edited by Dr. Ronald A.M. Buijsen

RNAi reduces levels of disease-causing Ataxin-1 in SCA1 model mice, easing symptoms of disease when injected both before and after symptom onset.

Lowering the amount of the disease-causing mutant Ataxin-1 protein in affected cells and tissues improves symptoms of disease in spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) mouse models. Like patients with SCA1, mouse models exhibit worsening coordination and degeneration of neurons, beginning in adulthood. Previous work has used genetic manipulation before disease onset (Zu et al 2004). This prevents or delays the onset of disease in SCA1 mouse models. When this is done soon after the onset of symptoms, associated markers of disease are reversed. This suggests that there is a window of time after symptoms start wherein mutant Ataxin-1 can be targeted to improve patient outlook. The 2016 paper by Keiser and colleagues seeks to further study this effect, using RNA interference as a strategy to reduce disease-causing levels of Ataxin-1. As there is no current treatment for Ataxin-1, this is an important step towards assessing possible treatment strategies that could be useful in patients.

female scientist holding a clipboard standing in a laboratory in fornt of a microscope. Books and pictures of neurons line the wall behind her
Cartoon of a scientist reading over results.

Current strategies seek to decrease the amount of Ataxin-1 made in cells by targeting messenger RNA (mRNA)- the blueprints for proteins in a cell- for destruction. RNA interference (RNAi) is one such method which harnesses normal cellular processes to degrade specific mRNAs. In Keiser’s 2016 paper, a modified virus carrying a short sequence of DNA is injected into the brain of a mouse with SCA1. When this virus is injected, the DNA sequence enters the cells of nearby brain regions and stops the production of specific mRNA. In this case, it is Ataxin-1 mRNA that is specifically targeted. As Ataxin-1 mRNA are destroyed, the amount of Ataxin-1 protein made in the cell decreases.

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Recovering Purkinje cell health could improve quality of life in SCA3

Written by Jorge Diogo Da Silva Edited by Dr. David Bushart

Normalizing neuronal dysfunction in SCA3/MJD by activating a receptor inside cells

Spinocerebellar ataxia type 3 (SCA3), also known as Machado-Joseph disease (MJD), is an inherited neurodegenerative disease that typically begins in mid-adulthood. This disease causes loss of coordination and balance (a group of symptoms known as ataxia), abnormal eye movements, and other motor symptoms, all of which limit a patient’s daily life activities. Treating SCA3 patients is currently very challenging, since there are no drugs or other treatments that slow or stop the progression of this disease. While several therapeutic options have been tested in clinical trials, none have shown considerable and consistent effects in improving disease symptoms. Therefore, it is imperative that other treatments are investigated and tested in the clinical setting, in the hopes that we might find a way to improve the lives of SCA3 patients.

The cause of this disease is very well-characterized: patients with SCA3 have an abnormal form of a protein called ataxin-3. All proteins are made up of a sequence of several smaller building blocks known as amino acids. In ataxin-3’s sequence, there is a region where one type of amino acid, glutamine, is repeated consecutively. SCA3 arises when the number of these repeated amino acids is very high (an abnormality known as a polyglutamine expansion), which is toxic for cells.

One of the regions of the brain that is most responsible for regulating balance and movement coordination is the cerebellum, which is located just behind the brainstem (the region connecting the spinal cord to the rest of the brain). As expected, the cerebellum is one of the most affected brain regions in SCA3, since it helps control gait and coordination. Purkinje cells, which are some of the largest neurons in the brain, make up a substantial portion of the cerebellum. These cells receive information from other neurons that detect our surroundings, then emit a signal to the brain regions that control muscles and regulate our movement. This allows us to make movements that are coherent and fluid.

cross section of the cerebellum with purkinje cells stained blue
Cerebellum Cross Section with Purkinje Cells. Image courtesy of Berkshire Community College Bioscience Image Library

Since Purkinje cells are dysfunctional in SCA3, it is reasonable to think that improving the well-being of these cells could also reduce symptoms. In a recent publication, Watanave and colleagues described how they explored a strategy to improve Purkinje cell function using drugs in a mouse model of SCA3, with findings that could be relevant for future studies in patients.

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Brain-derived neurotrophic factor: A new (old) hope for the treatment of SCA1

Written by Eviatar Fields Edited by Dr. Vitaliy Bondar

Scientists use Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor to delay motor symptom onset and cell death in a mouse model of Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 1

Spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) is a rare neurodegenerative disease that affects about 2 out of 100,000 individuals. Patients with SCA1 present with motor symptoms such as disordered walking, poor motor coordination and balance problems by their mid-thirties and will progressively get worse symptoms over the next two decades. No treatments for SCA1 exists. These motor symptoms cause a significant decrease in patient independence and quality of life. Scientists use mouse models that recreate many SCA1 symptoms to understand the cause of this disease and test new treatments.

In this paper, Mellesmoen and colleagues use a mouse model of SCA1 which presents with severe motor symptoms by adulthood. In order to measure the severity of the motor problems in the SCA1 mouse model, the researchers use a test called a rotarod. The rotarod test is similar to a rolling log balance: mice are placed on a rotating drum that slowly accelerates. Mice that can stay on the drum for longer durations have better motor coordination than mice who fall off the drum earlier. Mellesmoen was trying to find a way to get the mice to stay on the drum for longer.

artistic cartoon of male doctor sin from of a microscope and large DNA model
Cartoon of a medical researcher holding a clipboard. 

Purkinje cells, the main cells of the cerebellum, eventually die in SCA1 mouse models and in patients later in life. However, it remains unclear how and why these brain cells, which are responsible for the fine-tuning of movement and motor coordination, die. This is an important question as its answer might lead to new treatments that prevent brain cells from dying which might improve SCA1 symptoms. One possibility is that some changes in gene expression (that is, how “active” or “inactive” a gene is) causes the cells to die in SCA1 mice. To test this hypothesis, the authors used a technique called RNA-seq to examine how gene expression is altered in SCA1 mice compared to healthy mice.

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Discovery in mice sheds light on how the brain learns to adjust how we walk (video)

Written by Dr. Ambika Tewari Edited by Dr. Sriram Jayabal

New research identifies the cell type in the cerebellum that is vital for a specific form of motor learning

Locomotion – the process of moving oneself from one place to another – is highly adaptive. Depending on our current needs, we can alter the way we walk (known as our gait) without much trouble. For instance, we might increase our speed to get to a meeting in time or, if we have time for a more relaxing stroll, reduce our speed. This locomotor adaptation may seem effortless, but it actually involves a high level of coordination. It is quite apparent when witnessing a toddler trying to walk that figuring out our adaptive mechanisms plays an important role in fine-tuning movements. Because of this, determining how locomotor adaptation works has become a focus of research in the field of rehabilitative therapy, especially with patient populations that experiences gait deficits.

Young toddler boy learning how to walk and balance
Photo of a toddler how to walk. How does of brain learn how to fine tune our movements to help us balance? Photo by Aleksandr Balandin on Pexels.com

In an effort to better understand the intricate details of locomotor adaptation, researchers at the University of Portugal recently performed a study using adult mice. In this study, mice performed a task on a specialized piece of equipment called a split-belt treadmill, which consists of two separate belts running parallel to each other. The speed of these belts can be independently controlled, allowing researchers to impose different demands to the limbs on the right side of the body versus the left. Though split-belt treadmills are used in rehabilitative therapy for patients with post-stroke hemiparesis (where one side of the body is weakened after stroke), this was the first study that adapted the use of this treadmill for mice.

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