Contact:
Carrie Martin Munk
The ALS Association
(571) 319-3047
cmunk@alsa-national.org

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Three Studies Highlight Findings Involving the C9orf72 Gene Mutation

Washington, D.C. (November 4, 2013)—In work supported by The ALS Association, three studies expand the understanding of the effects of the C9orf72 gene mutation, the most common genetic cause of ALS.

ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects neurons (nerve cells) in the brain and the spinal cord. Eventually, people with ALS lose the ability to initiate and control muscle movement, which often leads to total paralysis and death within two to five years of diagnosis. There is no cure and no life-prolonging treatments for the disease. 

“These studies provide important new insights into this gene,” said Lucie Bruijn, Ph.D., Chief Scientist for The Association. “By learning more about the all consequences of the mutation, we can look for multiple therapies to address them.”

In the first study, researchers showed that the mutant gene is modified to reduce the amount of protein that is made from it. This modification, called histone methylation, affected the mutant copy of the gene but not the normal copy also carried by virtually all people who carry the mutation. It is possible that this modification accounts for the lower levels of the C9orf72 protein seen in people with ALS. The function of the protein is unknown, but it is possible that a decrease in the protein may be harmful to cells. The researchers saw this methylation change not only in neurons, but also in blood cells. This means that methylation might be valuable as a “biomarker” to detect the presence of the gene mutation. Biomarkers serve as an indicator of a particular condition in the body.  This study was conducted by Veronique Belzil, Ph.D., and Peter Bauer, M.D., Ph.D., under the guidance of Leonard Petrucelli, Ph.D., all of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. Dr. Petrucelli’s research is funded by The Association. This study was published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica.

In the second study, Tania Gendron, Ph.D., and graduate student Kevin Bieniek, together with  Dr. Petrucelli and Dennis Dickson, M.D., also of the Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, showed that the C9orf72 mutation is “read” by the protein-making machinery of the cell in an unusual way. The DNA that forms all genes has two strands, which pair together. Normally, only one strand is used to form the “messenger” molecule RNA, which ultimately provides the information for making the protein. When the C9orf72 gene is mutated, that messenger RNA becomes very long and tangled, presumably leading to many of the problems seen in ALS neurons. In this study, the authors found that not just one strand, but both strands of the DNA, were used to form messenger RNA, and that RNA from the usually silent strand also became tangled. In addition, this RNA was “read” by the protein-making machinery as well, forming unusual short proteins called “RAN peptides.” The contribution of RAN peptides to ALS is unknown and is the subject of intense investigation. This study was also published in Acta Neuropathologica.

“These results give us new leads in our pursuit of understanding the consequences of the C9orf72 mutation,” Dr. Bruijn said. “Our next step is to determine just how significant each of these changes is and whether they can be mitigated by development of new therapeutics.”

In the third study, researchers showed that the tangles of RNA caused by the C9orf72 mutation could be reduced using “antisense” molecules that bind to and help degrade RNA. Working in cultured neurons derived from people with this mutation, antisense treatment also corrected several mutation-induced abnormalities in the neurons, indicating the potential for antisense treatment for people with C9orf72-caused ALS. The study was conducted by Dhruv Sareen, Ph.D., under the leadership of Robert Baloh, M.D., both of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, Calif., with contributions from Dr. Petrucelli.

“Antisense therapy is a highly promising approach to treatment of ALS due to known gene mutations,” Dr. Bruijn noted. “The Association is at the forefront of support for developing this type of therapy, and these results give us still more hope that it may be a valuable treatment.”

About The ALS Association
The ALS Association is the only national non-profit organization fighting Lou Gehrig’s Disease on every front.  By leading the way in global research, providing assistance for people with ALS through a nationwide network of chapters, coordinating multidisciplinary care through certified clinical care centers, and fostering government partnerships, The Association builds hope and enhances quality of life while aggressively searching for new treatments and a cure.  For more information about The ALS Association, visit our website at www.alsa.org.

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