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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ASO treatment to lower ataxin-1 levels doesn’t cause unwanted side effects in a SCA1 mouse model

Written by Dr. Ronald Buijsen Edited by Dr. Larissa Nitschke

O’Callaghan and colleagues show that novel therapeutic approaches to reduce the disease-causing protein in SCA1 do not increase the risk of developing cancer or Alzheimer’s disease in SCA1 mice.

People affected with Spinocerebellar Ataxia type 1 or SCA1 carry an expansion of a repetitive stretch of DNA in the ATXN1 gene. The expanded ATXN1 gene encodes an expanded ataxin-1 protein, which accumulates and causes toxicity in the brain. This causes motor coordination problems and premature lethality. So far, there is no treatment that slows, stops, or reverses SCA1 disease progression.

Still, several preclinical studies demonstrated that reducing ataxin-1 protein levels can improve the motor coordination deficits in SCA1 mouse models. One strategy to reduce ataxin-1 levels is the use of antisense oligonucleotides (ASO). These ASO treatments specifically cleave Atxn1 mRNA and lower ataxin-1 protein levels.

This study, published by the group of Dr. Harry Orr in 2018, showed that injection of ASOs into the brain of SCA1 mice improves motor deficits, prolonged survival, and reversed neurochemical abnormalities. However, lowering ataxin-1 protein levels might lead to altered expression of other proteins in the brain. This could impact the safety of this treatment strategy. Therefore, this follow-up study investigated whether lowering of ataxin-1 protein levels results in unwanted effects.

a brown laboratory mouse sits in a researcher's gloved hand
ASO research in SCA1 is promising. But before moving forward, more safety testing had to be done in SCA1 mouse models. Image courtesy of Rama on Wikimedia.
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A new molecule identified that controls cerebellar communication

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

Targeting phosphatases in the cerebellum can correct miscommunication in multiple models of ataxia.

The cerebellum is essential for motor coordination and consists of the coordinated activity of different types of cells. Purkinje cells are one of the most fascinating cell types in the cerebellum. They have an elaborate network of branches called dendrites, where a neuron receives communication from other neurons. It is one of the most complex branching systems seen across all neurons in the entire brain. Each one of these branches has many points of contact with other branches called axons. Each axon is part of a neuronal structure that allow communication between neurons. These axons are from different cell types and allow information to be transferred to Purkinje cells.

Colourful illustration of a human brain
Targeting phosphatases in the brain could improve communication between neurons, reducing ataxia symptoms.

Due to this branching complexity, Purkinje cells receive many messages or inputs. This represents different pieces of sensory information to ensure that movements are precisely timed. Purkinje cells must integrate and process this information. This produces motor behaviors like walking, writing, playing a musical instrument, and many more. Any alteration to the processing of this information will result in cerebellum dysfunction; in fact, Purkinje cells have gained attention because they undergo progressive deterioration in most ataxias. 

Neurons, including Purkinje cells, communicate with other neurons using electrical signals known as action potentials or spikes. Firing rate, defined as the number of spikes within a defined period of time, is thought to be an important feature of this communication, which is critical for coordinating muscle movements. Therefore, a lower firing rate in Purkinje cells would signal a faulty communication between Purkinje cells and their targets. This has devastating consequences as seen in many ataxias.

For instance, in an earlier study, a group of authors found that the firing rate of Purkinje cells was decreased in mouse models of three different Spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs): SCA1, SCA2, and SCA5. They further explored whether there was a common reason underlying the decreased firing rate. They found that a protein named Missing in Metastasis (MTSS1), was important for Purkinje cells to effectively communicate with each other. Mice engineered to have no MTSS1 protein had a decreased firing rate and difficulty walking and maintaining their balance.

In every cell in the body, including brain cells, there are numerous proteins that perform different functions. The concerted effort of all are needed for the cell to perform its intended duty. Some of these proteins are maintained in the cell in an inactive form and are activated when they are required in the cell and inhibited when they are not. This highly regulated system aims to maintain precise levels of proteins in each cell, while simultaneously conserving energy. Each cell has many ways of activating/inactivating a protein. A specialized group of proteins known as kinases and phosphatases, adds and removes phosphate groups to and from proteins respectively, thereby altering their active/inactive forms which then changes their interactions with other proteins. MTSS1 is one such protein that inhibits the activity of a group of kinases known as Src family of non-receptor tyrosine kinases (SFKs).

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Discovery of a new molecular pathway in spinocerebellar ataxia 17

Written by Dr. Sriram Jayabal Edited by Dr. Ray Truant

A potential new pathway for SCA17: gene therapy that in mice restores a critical protein deficit protects brain cells from death in SCA17.

Neurodegenerative ataxias are a group of brain disorders that progressively affect one’s ability to make fine coordinated muscular movements. This makes is difficulty for people with ataxia to walk. Spinocerebellar ataxia type 17 (SCA17) is one such late-onset neurological disease which typically manifests at mid-life. The life expectancy after symptoms first appear is approximately 18-20 years. Besides ataxia, SCA17 can cause a number of other symptoms ranging from dementia (loss of memory), psychiatric disorders, dystonia (uncontrollable contraction of muscles), chorea (unpredictable muscle movements), spasticity (tightened muscles), and epilepsy.

Brain imaging and post-mortem studies have identified that the cerebellum (often referred to as the little brain) is one of the primary brain regions that is affected. That being said, other brain regions such as the cerebrum (cortex or the big brain) and brainstem (distal part of the brain found after the cerebellum) could undergo degeneration. Further, the genetic mutation that leads to SCA17, is a CAG-repeat expansion mutation, similar to several other forms of ataxias. In most other ataxias, where the function of the mutated protein is unknown. However in SCA17, the function of the mutated protein, TATA-box binding protein, is very well understood. Despite this unique advantage, we are yet to completely understand how the mutant gene leads to SCA17. This is why current treatment strategies often focus on treating the symptoms, but not the underlying cause.

person holding laboratory flask
Photo by Chokniti Khongchum on Pexels.com

SCA17 mutation leads to Purkinje cell death

Researchers from China have shed more light on how the mutant gene causes SCA17. TATA-box binding protein is a transcription initiation factor is a protein that turns on the production of RNA from genes. It is widely found across the brain including the cerebellum. TATA-box binding protein controls the amount of protein manufactured from several genes. This raised a very important question: pertinent not only to SCA17 but also more generally to several SCAs – why is that the cerebellar neurons, especially the most sensitive neuron, the Purkinje cells die?

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Levels of Capicua may make SCA1 neurodegeneration worse in parts of the brain

Written by Stephanie Coffin Edited by Dr. Brenda Toscano

Ataxin-1 may not be the only protein important in driving neurodegeneration in SCA1

Why does a protein that cause disease only cause toxicity in specific regions of the brain, despite being in all cells of the body?  This is the question authors attempt to answer in this article, with a focus on spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) and the disease causing protein, Ataxin-1.  SCA1 is a polyglutamine expansion disorder, meaning patients with the disease have a CAG repeat in the ATXN1 gene that is larger than that of the healthy population.  This mutant allele is then translated into a mutant protein, causing SCA1.  Ataxin-1 protein is expressed throughout the entire brain, however, toxicity (cell death and problems) is mainly restricted to neurons of the cerebellum and brainstem.  This phenomenon is called “selective vulnerability” and refers to disorders in which a restricted group of neurons degenerate, despite widespread expression of the disease protein.  Selective vulnerability occurs in many diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s disease and is currently under investigation by many scientists in the field of neurodegeneration.

In SCA1, this selective vulnerability can be narrowed further in the cerebellum. The cerebellum is broken down into lobules (I-X), with lobules II-V described as the anterior region and lobules IX-X as the nodular zone. Studies have previously shown cerebellar Purkinje cells to be particularly sensitive to mutant ataxin-1, and within the cerebellum, neurons in the anterior region degenerate faster than those in the nodular zone.  This paper wanted to understand the mechanism of this interesting biology, hypothesizing that there are genes whose are expressed mainly in these zones could correlate with the pattern of Purkinje cell degeneration. To this end, the authors used the mouse model ataxin-1 [82Q], which overexpresses human ataxin-1 with 82 CAG repeats specifically in cerebellar Purkinje cells.

Doctor howing up a scan of the human brain
Why do some parts of the brain degenerate in SCA1, when the disease causing protein is expressed in all pWhy do some regions of the brain degenerate in SCA1, when the disease-causing protein is expressed in all parts of the body? Why don’t other regions show the same signs of disease? This is what researchers sought to find out in this study. Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

First, the authors confirmed the finding that neurons from the anterior region of the cerebellum degenerate earlier than those in the nodular zone.  They did this by assessing the health and number of Purkinje cells, which indeed appeared to be better in the cells located in the nodular zone.  Next, techniques assessing expression of RNA in SCA1 and control cerebellum, showed that there are a number of genes which are uniquely dysregulated in the anterior cerebellum of SCA1 mice.  Neurons function and communicate with each other via ion channels, and interestingly, the genes found to be dysregulated in the anterior cerebellum of SCA1 mice were related to ion channel signaling.

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