Spotlight: The Cvetanovic Lab

Principal Investigator: Dr. Marija Cvetanovic

Location: University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA

Year Founded:  2012

What disease areas do you research?

What models and techniques do you use?

Group picture of 11 people in casual clothing.
This is a group picture of the Cvetanovic Lab from 2021. Back Row from the left to right: Katherine Hamel, Alyssa Soles, Marija Cvetanovic (PI), Austin Dellafosse, Kaelin Sbrocco, and Carrie Sheeler. Front Row from left to right: Laurel Schuck, Ella Borgenheimer, Genevieve Benjamin, Juao-Guilherme Rosa, and Fares Ghannoum. Not Pictured: Stephen Gilliat.

Research Focus

What is your research about?

The human brain is made up of many different types of cells. Each of them has slightly different roles in a healthy brain. The goal of our research is to understand how SCA1 makes these different cells sick in different ways. We want to check if different parts of the brain show distinct or unique changes because of SCA1.

We are also interested in identifying which physical changes in the brain lead to specific SCA1 symptoms. We do a lot of our research on a specific type of brain cell called glial cells.

Why do you do this research?

Most brain research focus on neurons. But 50% of the cells in your brain aren’t neurons, they are glial cells! Glial cells help support and regulate neuronal activity, but they often get overlooked. But more scientists like us are researching glial cells. They do a lot for your brain.

If we want to develop successful therapies for SCA1, we need to understand how glial cells are impacted. Without that knowledge, we will not have the full picture. That’s why we do this work.

Fun Fact

We have a number of fluffy companions in our lab. Please check the Creative Catalysts page of our Lab Website for pictures!

For More Information, check out the Cvetanovic Lab Website!

Written by Dr. Marija Cvetanovic, Edited by Celeste Suart

Mutated ataxin-1 protein forms harmful, doughnut-shaped aggregates that are not easily destroyed

Written by Brenda Toscano Marquez   Edited by Marija Cvetanovic

Insoluble clumps of mutated ataxin-1 capture essential proteins and trigger the creation of toxic reactive oxygen species.

All proteins produced by our cells consist of long chains of amino acids that are coiled and bent into a particular 3D structure. Changes in that structure can cause serious issues in a cell’s function, sometimes resulting in disease. Spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) is thought to be the result of one such structural change. The cause of SCA1 is a mutation that makes a repeating section of the ATXIN1 gene abnormally long. This repeated genetic code, “CAG,” is what encodes the amino acid glutamine in the resulting ataxin-1 protein. Therefore, in the cells of patients with SCA1, the Ataxin-1 protein is produced with an expanded string of glutamines, one after the other. This polyglutamine expansion makes the mutated ataxin-1 protein form clumps in many different types of cells – most notably, though, in the cells most affected in SCA1: the brain’s Purkinje cells.

Recent research suggests that these clumps, or “aggregates,” not only take up space in the cell, but that the act of ataxin-1 proteins clustering together might even be beneficial in early stages of disease (it’s possible that the proteins wreak less havoc when they’re in large clumps, rather than all floating around individually). However, another line of research suggests that ataxin-1 aggregates might also be toxic, triggering signals that lead to the cell’s death. As such, how exactly these aggregates affect the deterioration of cells has remained an important question in SCA1 research.

n a search for answers, an international team led by Stamatia Laidou designed a unique cell model of SCA1 to track the development of ataxin-1 aggregates. Their study, published in a recent paper, made use of normal human mesenchymal stem cells that had been engineered to make a modified version of the ataxin-1 protein. In these cells, ataxin-1 was produced not only with the SCA1-causing expansion, but also with a marker protein attached to its end. This marker, known as “green fluorescent protein” (GFP), is used extensively in biological research because it glows under fluorescent light.

doughnut with white and pink sprinkles
Laidou and colleagues have observed mutated ataxin-1 clumps that cause cell stress. Photo by Tim Gouw on

Using this to their advantage, Laidou and her team used a fluorescent microscope to follow the formation of ataxin-1 aggregates over the course of 10 days. The abnormal protein first started accumulating in the nucleus as small dots. As time went on, these dots started blending together, increasing in size. By ten days, the ataxin-1 aggregates had grown even more, forming a doughnut-shaped structure that occupied most of the cell’s nucleus – a crucial structure that houses the cell’s genetic information. These results were intriguing, since the accumulation of normal, non-expanded Ataxin-1 protein does not result in an aggregate with a doughnut shape.

Continue reading “Mutated ataxin-1 protein forms harmful, doughnut-shaped aggregates that are not easily destroyed”

Spotlight: The Neuro-D lab Leiden

Principal Investigator: Dr. Willeke van Roon-Mom

Location: Leiden University Medical Centre, Leiden, The Netherlands

Year Founded: 1995

What disease areas do you research?

What models and techniques do you use?

A group photo of members of the Neuro-D lab Leiden standing outside on a patio.
This is a group picture taken during our brainstorm day last June. From left to right: Boyd Kenkhuis, Elena Daoutsali, Tom Metz, Ronald Buijsen, Willeke van Roon-Mom (PI), David Parfitt, Hannah Bakels, Barry Pepers, Linda van der Graaf and Elsa Kuijper. Image courtesy of Ronald Buijsen.

Research Focus

What is your research about?

The Neuro-D research group studies how diseases develop and progress at the molecular level in several neurodegenerative diseases. They focus on diseases that have protein aggregation, where the disease proteins clump up into bundles in the brain and don’t work correctly.

We focus strongly on translational research, meaning we try to bridge the gap between research happening in the laboratory to what is happening in medical clinics. To do this we use more “traditional” research models like animal and cell models. But we also use donated patient tissues and induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) models, which is closer to what is seen in medical clinics.

Our aim is to unravel what is going wrong in these diseases, then discover and test potential novel drug targets and therapies.

One thing we are doing to work towards this goal is identifying biomarkers to measure how diseases progress over time. To do this, we use sequencing technology and other techniques to look at new and past data from patients.

Why do you do this research?

So far there are no therapies to stop the progression of ataxia. If we can understand what is happening in diseases in individual cells, we can develop therapies that can halt or maybe even reverse disease progression.

Identifying biomarkers is also important, because it will help us figure out the best time to treat patients when we eventually have a therapy to test.

Stylized logo for the Dutch Center for RNA Therapeutics
The Neuro-D lab Leiden is part of the Dutch Center for RNA Therapeutics, which focuses on RNA therapies like antisense oligonucleotides. Logo designed by Justus Kuijer (VormMorgen), as 29 year old patient with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Are you recruiting human participants for research?

Yes, we are! We are looking for participants for a SCA1 natural history study and biomarker study. More information can be found here. Please note that information about this study is only available in Dutch.

Fun Fact

All our fridges and freezers have funny names like walrus, seal, snow grouse and snowflake.

For More Information, check out the Neuro-D lab Leiden website!

Written by Dr. Ronald Buijsen, Edited by Celeste Suart

Sunrise of Gene Therapy for Friedreich’s Ataxia

Written by Dr. Marija Cvetanovic   Edited by Dr. Ronald Buijsen

Researchers from the University of California show they can “edit” the Frataxin gene in human cells from Friedreich’s Ataxia and transplant them into mice. This lays the groundwork for this method to be tested for safety.

Friedreich’s ataxia is a progressive, neurodegenerative movement disorder. It is often associated with heart issues and diabetes. Symptoms first start to appear in patients when they are around 10 to 15 years old. Friedreich’s ataxia has the prevalence of approximately 1 in 40,000 people and is inherited in a recessive manner. This means that patients with Friedreich’s ataxia inherited a disease gene from both the father and mother. Friedreich’s ataxia is caused by an overexpansion of the GAA repeat in the Frataxin gene, all these extra repeats causes less Frataxin protein to be made.

Human hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs) are the stem cells that give make to other types of blood cells. You can find HSPCs in the blood all around the body.

HSPCs are ideal candidates for use in stem cell therapy because of a few reasons. First, you can easily get them out of the body through a blood donation (at least easier than some other types of cells!). Second, they can self-renew, meaning they will make more of themselves. Third, other folks have researched this type of cell before, so we know they are fairly safe. Researchers wanted to test if these cells could be used to help treat Friedreich’s ataxia.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a customizable tool that lets scientists cut and insert small pieces of DNA at precise areas along a DNA strand. The tool is composed of two basic parts: the Cas9 protein, which acts like the wrench, and the specific RNA guides, CRISPRs, which act as the set of different socket heads. These guides direct the Cas9 protein to the correct gene, or area on the DNA strand, that controls a particular trait. This lets scientists study our genes in a specific, targeted way and in real-time.
Researchers used CRISPR editing to fix the mutation causing Friedreich’s ataxia in patient blood cells. Photo Credit: Ernesto del Aguila III, National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health
Continue reading “Sunrise of Gene Therapy for Friedreich’s Ataxia”

Terapia gênica validada em celulas estaminais SCA3 humanas

Escrito por Dr. Marija Cvetanovic, Editado por Dr. Sriram Jayabal, Traduzido para Português por Guilherme Santos, Publicado inicialmente em: 20 de março de 2020.

Grupo de pesquisa em Michigan relata a criação do primeiro modelo de célula humana aprovado pelo NIH que reflete as características da doença SCA3 – defeitos celulares que, após terapia genética, mostram melhora

A ataxia espinocerebelar tipo 3 (SCA3) é uma doença genética de início tardio, de herança dominante, que afeta várias regiões do cérebro. Os indivíduos afetados sofrem de vários sintomas, sendo a coordenação do movimento a mais prejudicada e debilitante. A SCA3 é causada por uma mutação no gene Ataxin-3 (ATXN3). Em indivíduos não afetados, o gene ATXN3 geralmente tem de 12 a 44 repetições do código genético “CAG;” no entanto, no código genético de algumas pessoas, o número de repetições de CAG pode se tornar anormalmente alto. Se essa mutação de “expansão repetida” fizer com que o gene ATXN3 tenha mais de 56 repetições CAG, a pessoa desenvolverá ataxia SCA3. As células usam sequências CAG repetidas em seu genoma para produzir proteínas com longas extensões do aminoácido glutamina. Nas células SCA3, esses tratos de “poliglutamina” (polyQ) são anormalmente longos na proteína ATXN3, o que torna a proteína mais propensa a formar aglomerados (ou “agregados”) na célula. A presença desses aglomerados de proteínas nas células do cérebro é uma das características do SCA3.

Apesar de conhecer a causa genética da SCA3, ainda não se sabe como essa mutação afeta as células no nível molecular. Dito isto, vários modelos celulares e animais foram desenvolvidos nas últimas duas décadas para ajudar a estudar esses mecanismos subjacentes. Os modelos SCA3 não apenas ajudaram a nossa compreensão da progressão da doença em todos os níveis (molecular, celular, tecido e comportamental), mas também nos ajudaram a nos aproximar de intervenções terapêuticas. Por exemplo, estudos recentes usando modelos de camundongo SCA3 estabeleceram que direcionar o ATXN3 com uma forma de terapia genética conhecida como tratamento com oligonucleotídeo antisense (ASO) poderia muito bem ser uma estratégia eficaz para melhorar a vida dos pacientes. Os ASOs direcionados ao ATXN3 fazem com que as células do cérebro produzam menos proteína ATXN3 mutante e, quando administradas a camundongos SCA3, melhoram sua função motora. Esses resultados apoiam fortemente o uso potencial de ASOs no tratamento da SCA3. Ainda assim, é importante verificar se esse achado pode ser repetido em neurônios humanos (um passo necessário para nos aproximar dos ensaios clínicos da ASO).

Female scientist in a while lab coat busy at work, we are looking at her from behind through some glass bottles
Imagem de um cientista pesquisador trabalhando no laboratório. Imagem cortesia de pxfuel.

A experiência anterior de ensaios clínicos malsucedidos destaca a importância de determinar as semelhanças e diferenças entre humanos e camundongos quando se trata de doença. Por exemplo, a mutação SCA3 não ocorre naturalmente em camundongos; portanto, modelar SCA3 em camundongos geralmente requer manipulação genética adicional, o que poderia levar a efeitos inesperados que normalmente não vemos nos humanos. Além disso, podemos perder importantes determinantes da patologia de SCA3 devido às diferenças inerentes entre humanos e camundongos. Por exemplo, proteínas que ajudam a contribuir para a SCA3 em pacientes humanos podem simplesmente não estar presentes nos neurônios do rato (e vice-versa). Devido a essas diferenças de espécies, as intervenções terapêuticas eficazes em camundongos nem sempre são tão eficazes em humanos.

Os neurônios humanos SCA3 podem ajudar a preencher a lacuna entre modelos de roedores e pacientes humanos, atuando como uma ferramenta clinicamente relevante para examinar os mecanismos da doença e testar novas terapias. Como não podemos remover uma parte do cérebro de um paciente com SCA3 para estudar a doença, esses neurônios devem ser criados em laboratório. Os neurônios humanos podem ser gerados a partir de células estaminais pluripotentes induzidas (iPSCs) ou de células estiminais embrionárias humanas (hESCs). As células estaminais pluripotentes induzidas (iPSCs) são produzidas a partir de células adultas (geralmente células do sangue ou da pele) que são reprogramadas para retornar a uma forma semelhante a um embrião (conhecido como estado “pluripotente”). Assim como durante o desenvolvimento normal, as iPSCs podem criar muitos tipos diferentes de células, incluindo neurônios. Um problema com essa abordagem é que o processo de reprogramação pode potencialmente alterar essas células de maneira a afetar a forma como a doença se apresenta. Para evitar esse problema, os pesquisadores também podem criar neurônios humanos a partir de células estaminais embrionárias humanas (hESCs), derivadas de embriões e, portanto, naturalmente pluripotentes. Como os hESCs não requerem reprogramação, é mais provável que modelem com precisão a doença. No entanto, eles são mais difíceis de obter e trabalhar. Os pesquisadores deste estudo, liderados por Lauren Moore no laboratório do Dr. Hank Paulson na Universidade de Michigan, usaram hESCs para gerar o primeiro modelo SCA3 aprovado pelo Instituto Nacional de Saúde (Americano) – National Institutes of Health (NIH) usando células humanas.

Continue reading “Terapia gênica validada em celulas estaminais SCA3 humanas”