Written by Dr. Laura Bowie Edited by Dr. Hayley McLoughlin
Researchers use genetics to find new pathways that impact the onset of polyglutamine disease symptoms
The cells of the human body are complex little machines, specifically evolved to fulfill certain roles. Brain cells, or neurons, act differently from skin cells, which, in turn, act differently from muscle cells. The blueprints for all of these cells are encoded in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). To carry out the instructions in these cellular blueprints, the DNA must be made into ribonucleic acid (RNA), which carries the instructions from the DNA to the machinery that makes proteins. Proteins are the primary molecules responsible for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s organs and tissues. A gene is a unit of DNA that encodes instructions for a heritable characteristic – usually, instructions for a making a particular protein. If there is something wrong at the level of the DNA (known as a mutation) then this can translate to a problem at the level of the protein. This could alter the function of a protein in a detrimental manner – possibly even rendering it totally non-functional.
DNA is made up of smaller building blocks called nucleotides. There are four different nucleotides: cytosine (C), adenine (A), guanine (G), and thymine (T). Polyglutamine diseases, such as the spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs) and Huntington’s disease (HD), are caused by a CAG triplet repeat gene expansion, which leads to the expansion of a polyglutamine tract in the protein product of this gene (MacDonald et al., 1993; Zoghbi & Orr, 2000). Beyond a certain tract length, known as the disease “threshold,” the length of this expansion is inversely correlated with age at disease onset. In other words, the longer this expansion is, the earlier those carrying the mutation will develop disease symptoms. However, scientists have determined that onset age is not entirely due to repeat length, since individuals with the same repeat length can have different age of disease symptom onset (Tezenas du Montcel et al., 2014; Wexler et al., 2004). Therefore, other factors must be involved. These factors could be environmental, genetic, or some combination of both.
Written by Siddharth Nath Edited by Dr. Ray Truant
Oxidative stress is a hot topic in neurodegenerative disease research. New findings from Dr. Jonathan Magaña’s lab in Mexico show increases in measures of damage from oxygen compounds in SCA7 patients versus healthy individuals. This suggests that this type of chemical stress may be a critical step in triggering the death of brain cells in SCA7.
You’re stressed – whether you like it or not
You may not realize it, but all of the cells in your body are, at some point or another, undergoing stress. Now, this isn’t the same as what we normally take the word “stress” to mean. Your cells aren’t cramming for an exam, nor are they worried about an upcoming job interview. Instead, stress at the cellular level refers to the challenges cells face in the form of environmental extremes (like temperature changes), mechanical damage, exposure to toxins, and dysregulation of stress responses.
A particularly nasty type of stress that cells must contend with is oxidative stress. This results from an imbalance in the levels of reactive oxygen species (hence the term ‘oxidative’) within a cell and the cell’s ability to clear away these species. Reactive oxygen species form inside of cells as a byproduct of normal metabolism, and every cell has mechanisms to help with their clearance. These mechanisms, however, can become impaired. This could end up being disastrous because, when not removed properly, reactive oxygen species can wreak havoc in the cell: they have the ability to directly damage every cellular component, including proteins, lipids, and DNA.
Interestingly, oxidative stress increases naturally as we age and is a normal part of growing older. Oxidative stress is a topic of intense study and has been implicated in everything from cancer and bone disease to other neurodegenerative disorders (such as Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease). An inability to cope with or respond to increases in oxidative stress associated with aging may explain why many neurodegenerative disorders occur later in life, despite the fact that affected individuals express the disease gene from birth.