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1.  Generation and Characterization of a genetic zebrafish model of SMA carrying the human SMN2 gene 
Animal models of human diseases are essential as they allow analysis of the disease process at the cellular level and can advance therapeutics by serving as a tool for drug screening and target validation. Here we report the development of a complete genetic model of spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) in the vertebrate zebrafish to complement existing zebrafish, mouse, and invertebrate models and show its utility for testing compounds that alter SMN2 splicing.
The human motoneuron disease SMA is caused by low levels, as opposed to a complete absence, of the survival motor neuron protein (SMN). To generate a true model of SMA in zebrafish, we have generated a transgenic zebrafish expressing the human SMN2 gene (hSMN2), which produces only a low amount of full-length SMN, and crossed this onto the smn-/- background. We show that human SMN2 is spliced in zebrafish as it is in humans and makes low levels of SMN protein. Moreover, we show that an antisense oligonucleotide that enhances correct hSMN2 splicing increases full-length hSMN RNA in this model. When we placed this transgene on the smn mutant background it rescued the neuromuscular presynaptic SV2 defect that occurs in smn mutants and increased their survival.
We have generated a transgenic fish carrying the human hSMN2 gene. This gene is spliced in fish as it is in humans and mice suggesting a conserved splicing mechanism in these vertebrates. Moreover, antisense targeting of an intronic splicing silencer site increased the amount of full length SMN generated from this transgene. Having this transgene on the smn mutant fish rescued the presynaptic defect and increased survival. This model of zebrafish SMA has all of the components of human SMA and can thus be used to understand motoneuron dysfunction in SMA, can be used as an vivo test for drugs or antisense approaches that increase full-length SMN, and can be developed for drug screening.
PMCID: PMC3080329  PMID: 21443782
2.  Utility of Survival Motor Neuron ELISA for Spinal Muscular Atrophy Clinical and Preclinical Analyses 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(8):e24269.
Genetic defects leading to the reduction of the survival motor neuron protein (SMN) are a causal factor for Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). While there are a number of therapies under evaluation as potential treatments for SMA, there is a critical lack of a biomarker method for assessing efficacy of therapeutic interventions, particularly those targeting upregulation of SMN protein levels. Towards this end we have engaged in developing an immunoassay capable of accurately measuring SMN protein levels in blood, specifically in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), as a tool for validating SMN protein as a biomarker in SMA.
A sandwich enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) was developed and validated for measuring SMN protein in human PBMCs and other cell lysates. Protocols for detection and extraction of SMN from transgenic SMA mouse tissues were also developed.
The assay sensitivity for human SMN is 50 pg/mL. Initial analysis reveals that PBMCs yield enough SMN to analyze from blood volumes of less than 1 mL, and SMA Type I patients' PBMCs show ∼90% reduction of SMN protein compared to normal adults. The ELISA can reliably quantify SMN protein in human and mouse PBMCs and muscle, as well as brain, and spinal cord from a mouse model of severe SMA.
This SMN ELISA assay enables the reliable, quantitative and rapid measurement of SMN in healthy human and SMA patient PBMCs, muscle and fibroblasts. SMN was also detected in several tissues in a mouse model of SMA, as well as in wildtype mouse tissues. This SMN ELISA has general translational applicability to both preclinical and clinical research efforts.
PMCID: PMC3164180  PMID: 21904622
3.  Mouse Survival Motor Neuron Alleles That Mimic SMN2 Splicing and Are Inducible Rescue Embryonic Lethality Early in Development but Not Late 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(12):e15887.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is caused by low survival motor neuron (SMN) levels and patients represent a clinical spectrum due primarily to varying copies of the survival motor neuron-2 (SMN2) gene. Patient and animals studies show that disease severity is abrogated as SMN levels increase. Since therapies currently being pursued target the induction of SMN, it will be important to understand the dosage, timing and cellular requirements of SMN for disease etiology and potential therapeutic intervention. This requires new mouse models that can induce SMN temporally and/or spatially. Here we describe the generation of two hypomorphic Smn alleles, SmnC-T-Neo and Smn2B-Neo. These alleles mimic SMN2 exon 7 splicing, titre Smn levels and are inducible. They were specifically designed so that up to three independent lines of mice could be generated, herein we describe two. In a homozygous state each allele results in embryonic lethality. Analysis of these mutants indicates that greater than 5% of Smn protein is required for normal development. The severe hypomorphic nature of these alleles is caused by inclusion of a loxP-flanked neomycin gene selection cassette in Smn intron 7, which can be removed with Cre recombinase. In vitro and in vivo experiments demonstrate these as inducible Smn alleles. When combined with an inducible Cre mouse, embryonic lethality caused by low Smn levels can be rescued early in gestation but not late. This provides direct genetic evidence that a therapeutic window for SMN inductive therapies may exist. Importantly, these lines fill a void for inducible Smn alleles. They also provide a base from which to generate a large repertoire of SMA models of varying disease severities when combined with other Smn alleles or SMN2-containing mice.
PMCID: PMC3012126  PMID: 21249120
4.  Partial Restoration of Cardio-Vascular Defects in Rescued Severe Model of Spinal Muscular Atrophy 
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a leading genetic cause of infantile death. Loss of a gene called Survival Motor Neuron 1 (SMN1) and, as a result, reduced levels of the Survival Motor Neuron (SMN) protein leads to SMA development. SMA is characterized by the loss of functional motor neurons in the spinal cord. However, accumulating evidence suggest the contribution of other organs to the composite SMA phenotype and disease progression. A growing number of congenital heart defects have been identified in severe SMA patients. Consistent with the clinical cases, we have recently identified developmental and functional heart defects in two SMA mouse models, occurring at embryonic stage in a severe SMA model and shortly after birth in a less severe model (SMNΔ7). Our goal was to examine the late stage cardiac abnormalities in untreated SMNΔ7 mice and to determine whether gene replacement therapy restores cardiac structure/function in rescued SMNΔ7 model. To reveal the extent of the cardiac structural/functional repair in the rescued mice, we analyzed the heart of untreated and treated SMNΔ7 model using self-complementary Adeno-associated virus (serotype 9) expressing the full-length SMN cDNA. We examined the characteristics of the heart failure such as remodeling, fibrosis, oxidative stress, and vascular integrity in both groups. Our results clearly indicate that fibrosis, oxidative stress activation, vascular remodeling, and a significant decrease in the number of capillaries exist in the SMA heart. The cardiac structural defects were improved drastically in the rescued animals, however, the level of impairment was still significant compared to the age-matched wildtype littermates. Furthermore, functional analysis by in vivo cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed that the heart of the treated SMA mice still exhibit functional defects. In conclusion, cardiac abnormalities are only partially rescued in post-birth treated SMA animals and these abnormalities may contribute to the premature death of vector-treated SMA animals with seemingly rescued motor function but an average life span of less than 70 days as reported in several studies.
PMCID: PMC3327806  PMID: 22285962
SMA; scAAV9; Cardiac function; Oxidative stress; Vascular remodeling; MRI
5.  A SMN missense mutation complements SMN2 restoring snRNPs and rescuing SMA mice 
Human Molecular Genetics  2009;18(12):2215-2229.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is an autosomal recessive neurodegenerative disease. Loss of the survival motor neuron (SMN1) gene, in the presence of the SMN2 gene causes SMA. SMN functions in snRNP assembly in all cell types, however, it is unclear how this function results in specifically motor neuron cell death. Lack of endogenous mouse SMN (Smn) in mice results in embryonic lethality. Introduction of two copies of human SMN2 results in a mouse with severe SMA, while one copy of SMN2 is insufficient to overcome embryonic lethality. We show that SMN(A111G), an allele capable of snRNP assembly, can rescue mice that lack Smn and contain either one or two copies of SMN2 (SMA mice). The correction of SMA in these animals was directly correlated with snRNP assembly activity in spinal cord, as was correction of snRNA levels. These data support snRNP assembly as being the critical function affected in SMA and suggests that the levels of snRNPs are critical to motor neurons. Furthermore, SMN(A111G) cannot rescue Smn−/− mice without SMN2 suggesting that both SMN(A111G) and SMN from SMN2 undergo intragenic complementation in vivo to function in heteromeric complexes that have greater function than either allele alone. The oligomer composed of limiting full-length SMN and SMN(A111G) has substantial snRNP assembly activity. Also, the SMN(A2G) and SMN(A111G) alleles in vivo did not complement each other leading to the possibility that these mutations could affect the same function.
PMCID: PMC2685758  PMID: 19329542
6.  Neuronal SMN expression corrects spinal muscular atrophy in severe SMA mice while muscle-specific SMN expression has no phenotypic effect 
Human molecular genetics  2008;17(8):1063-1075.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is caused by loss of the survival motor neuron gene (SMN1) and retention of the SMN2 gene. The copy number of SMN2 affects the amount of SMN protein produced and the severity of the SMA phenotype. While loss of mouse Smn is embryonic lethal, two copies of SMN2 prevents this embryonic lethality resulting in a mouse with severe SMA that dies 5 days after birth. Here we show that expression of full-length SMN under the prion promoter (PrP) rescues severe SMA mice. The PrP results in high levels of SMN in neurons at embryonic day 15. Mice homozygous for PrP-SMN with two copies of SMN2 and lacking mouse Smn survive for an average of 210 days and lumbar motor neuron root counts in these mice were normal. Expression of SMN solely in skeletal muscle using the human skeletal actin (HSA) promoter resulted in no improvement of the SMA phenotype or extension of survival. One HSA line displaying nerve expression of SMN did affect the SMA phenotype with mice living for an average of 160 days. Thus, we conclude that expression of full-length SMN in neurons can correct the severe SMA phenotype in mice. Furthermore, a small increase of SMN in neurons has a substantial impact on survival of SMA mice while high SMN levels in mature skeletal muscle alone has no impact.
PMCID: PMC2835541  PMID: 18178576
7.  Hypoxia is a modifier of SMN2 splicing and disease severity in a severe SMA mouse model 
Human Molecular Genetics  2012;21(19):4301-4313.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease associated with low levels of the essential survival motor neuron (SMN) protein. Reduced levels of SMN is due to the loss of the SMN1 gene and inefficient splicing of the SMN2 gene caused by a C>T mutation in exon 7. Global analysis of the severe SMNΔ7 SMA mouse model revealed altered splicing and increased levels of the hypoxia-inducible transcript, Hif3alpha, at late stages of disease progression. Severe SMA patients also develop respiratory deficiency during disease progression. We sought to evaluate whether hypoxia was capable of altering SMN2 exon 7 splicing and whether increased oxygenation could modulate disease in a severe SMA mouse model. Hypoxia treatment in cell culture increased SMN2 exon 7 skipping and reduced SMN protein levels. Concordantly, the treatment of SMNΔ7 mice with hyperoxia treatment increased the inclusion of SMN2 exon 7 in skeletal muscles and resulted in improved motor function. Transfection splicing assays of SMN minigenes under hypoxia revealed that hypoxia-induced skipping is dependent on poor exon definition due to the SMN2 C>T mutation and suboptimal 5′ splice site. Hypoxia treatment in cell culture led to increased hnRNP A1 and Sam68 levels. Mutation of hnRNP A1-binding sites prevented hypoxia-induced skipping of SMN exon 7 and was found to bind both hnRNP A1 and Sam68. These results implicate hypoxic stress as a modulator of SMN2 exon 7 splicing in disease progression and a coordinated regulation by hnRNP A1 and Sam68 as modifiers of hypoxia-induced skipping of SMN exon 7.
PMCID: PMC3441125  PMID: 22763238
8.  Improved Antisense Oligonucleotide Design to Suppress Aberrant SMN2 Gene Transcript Processing: Towards a Treatment for Spinal Muscular Atrophy 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(4):e62114.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is caused by loss of the Survival Motor Neuron 1 (SMN1) gene, resulting in reduced SMN protein. Humans possess the additional SMN2 gene (or genes) that does produce low level of full length SMN, but cannot adequately compensate for loss of SMN1 due to aberrant splicing. The majority of SMN2 gene transcripts lack exon 7 and the resultant SMNΔ7 mRNA is translated into an unstable and non-functional protein. Splice intervention therapies to promote exon 7 retention and increase amounts of full-length SMN2 transcript offer great potential as a treatment for SMA patients. Several splice silencing motifs in SMN2 have been identified as potential targets for antisense oligonucleotide mediated splice modification. A strong splice silencer is located downstream of exon 7 in SMN2 intron 7. Antisense oligonucleotides targeting this motif promoted SMN2 exon 7 retention in the mature SMN2 transcripts, with increased SMN expression detected in SMA fibroblasts. We report here systematic optimisation of phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligonucleotides (PMO) that promote exon 7 retention to levels that rescued the phenotype in a severe mouse model of SMA after intracerebroventricular delivery. Furthermore, the PMO gives the longest survival reported to date after a single dosing by ICV.
PMCID: PMC3632594  PMID: 23630626
9.  Postsymptomatic restoration of SMN rescues the disease phenotype in a mouse model of severe spinal muscular atrophy 
The Journal of Clinical Investigation  2011;121(8):3029-3041.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a common neuromuscular disorder in humans. In fact, it is the most frequently inherited cause of infant mortality, being the result of mutations in the survival of motor neuron 1 (SMN1) gene that reduce levels of SMN protein. Restoring levels of SMN protein in individuals with SMA is perceived to be a viable therapeutic option, but the efficacy of such a strategy once symptoms are apparent has not been determined. We have generated mice harboring an inducible Smn rescue allele and used them in a model of SMA to investigate the effects of turning on SMN expression at different time points during the course of the disease. Restoring SMN protein even after disease onset was sufficient to reverse neuromuscular pathology and effect robust rescue of the SMA phenotype. Importantly, our findings also indicated that there was a therapeutic window of opportunity from P4 through P8 defined by the extent of neuromuscular synapse pathology and the ability of motor neurons to respond to SMN induction, following which restoration of the protein to the organism failed to produce therapeutic benefit. Nevertheless, our results suggest that even in severe SMA, timely reinstatement of the SMN protein may halt the progression of the disease and serve as an effective postsymptomatic treatment.
PMCID: PMC3148744  PMID: 21785219
10.  Decreasing Disease Severity in Symptomatic, Smn−/−;SMN2+/+, Spinal Muscular Atrophy Mice Following scAAV9-SMN Delivery 
Human Gene Therapy  2011;23(3):330-335.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), an autosomal recessive neuromuscular disorder, is the leading genetic cause of infant mortality. SMA is caused by the homozygous loss of Survival Motor Neuron-1 (SMN1). In humans, a nearly identical copy gene is present, SMN2. SMN2 is retained in all SMA patients and encodes the same protein as SMN1. However, SMN1 and SMN2 differ by a silent C-to-T transition at the 5’ end of exon 7, causing alternative splicing of SMN2 transcripts and low levels of full-length SMN. SMA is monogenic and therefore well suited for gene-replacement strategies. Recently, self-complementary adeno-associated virus (scAAV) vectors have been used to deliver the SMN cDNA to an animal model of disease, the SMNΔ7 mouse. In this study, we examine a severe model of SMA, Smn–/–;SMN2+/+, to determine whether gene replacement is viable in a model in which disease development begins in utero. Using two delivery paradigms, intracerebroventricular injections and intravenous injections, we delivered scAAV9-SMN and demonstrated a two to four fold increase in survival, in addition to improving many of the phenotypic parameters of the model. This represents the longest extension in survival for this severe model for any therapeutic intervention and suggests that postsymptomatic treatment of SMA may lead to significant improvement of disease severity.
Glascock and colleagues investigate gene replacement of survival motor neuron-2 (SMN2) in a mouse model of severe spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) in which disease development begins in utero. Self-complementary adeno-associated vector type 9 (AAV9) encoding SMN is delivered via intracerebroventricular or intravenous injection, resulting in a 2- to 4-fold increase in survival and improving many SMA phenotypic parameters.
PMCID: PMC3300100  PMID: 22029744
11.  Zebrafish survival motor neuron mutants exhibit presynaptic neuromuscular junction defects 
Human Molecular Genetics  2009;18(19):3615-3625.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a recessive genetic disease, affects lower motoneurons leading to denervation, atrophy, paralysis and in severe cases death. Reduced levels of survival motor neuron (SMN) protein cause SMA. As a first step towards generating a genetic model of SMA in zebrafish, we identified three smn mutations. Two of these alleles, smnY262stop and smnL265stop, were stop mutations that resulted in exon 7 truncation, whereas the third, smnG264D, was a missense mutation corresponding to an amino acid altered in human SMA patients. Smn protein levels were low/undetectable in homozygous mutants consistent with unstable protein products. Homozygous mutants from all three alleles were smaller and survived on the basis of maternal Smn dying during the second week of larval development. Analysis of the neuromuscular system in these mutants revealed a decrease in the synaptic vesicle protein, SV2. However, two other synaptic vesicle proteins, synaptotagmin and synaptophysin were unaffected. To address whether the SV2 decrease was due specifically to Smn in motoneurons, we tested whether expressing human SMN protein exclusively in motoneurons in smn mutants could rescue the phenotype. For this, we generated a transgenic zebrafish line with human SMN driven by the motoneuron-specific zebrafish hb9 promoter and then generated smn mutant lines carrying this transgene. We found that introducing human SMN specifically into motoneurons rescued the SV2 decrease observed in smn mutants. Our analysis indicates the requirement for Smn in motoneurons to maintain SV2 in presynaptic terminals indicating that Smn, either directly or indirectly, plays a role in presynaptic integrity.
PMCID: PMC2742401  PMID: 19592581
12.  Detection of human survival motor neuron (SMN) protein in mice containing the SMN2 transgene: applicability to preclinical therapy development for spinal muscular atrophy 
Journal of neuroscience methods  2008;175(1):36-43.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), the leading genetic cause of infant death results from loss of spinal motor neurons causing atrophy of skeletal muscle. SMA is caused by loss of the Survival Motor Neuron 1 (SMN1) gene, however, an identically-coding gene called SMN2 is retained, but is alternatively spliced to produce ~90% truncated protein. Most SMA translational and preclinical drug development has relied on the use of SMA mice to determine changes in SMN protein levels. However, the SMA mouse models are relatively severe and analysis of SMN-inducing compounds is confounded by the early mortality of these animals. An antibody that could detect SMN protein on a Smn background could circumvent this limitation and allow unaffected, heterozygous animals to be examined. Here we describe the generation and characterization of a monoclonal anti-SMN antibody, 4F11, which specifically recognizes human SMN protein. 4F11 detects SMN (human) but not native Smn (mouse) protein in SMN2 transgenic mice and in SMA cell lines. We demonstrate the feasibility of using 4F11 to detect changes in SMN2-derived SMN protein in SMA patient fibroblasts and in healthy SMN2 transgenic mice. This antibody is, therefore, an excellent tool for examining SMN2-inducing therapeutics in patient cells as well as in transgenic mice.
PMCID: PMC2613335  PMID: 18771690
spinal muscular atrophy; transgenic mouse; monoclonal antibody; biomarker; motor neuron disease; gem; survival motor neuron
13.  Antisense oligonucleotide mediated therapy of spinal muscular atrophy 
Translational neuroscience  2013;4(1):10.2478/s13380-013-0109-2.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is the leading genetic cause of infant mortality. SMA results from deletions or mutations of survival motor neuron 1 (SMN1), an essential gene. SMN2, a nearly identical copy, can compensate for SMN1 loss if SMN2 exon 7 skipping is prevented. Among the many cis-elements involved in the splicing regulation of SMN exon 7, intronic splicing silencer N1 (ISS-N1) has emerged as the most effective target for an antisense oligonucleotide (ASO)-mediated splicing correction of SMN2 exon 7. Blocking of ISS-N1 by an ASO has been shown to fully restore SMN2 exon 7 inclusion in SMA patient cells as well as in vivo. Here we review how ISS-N1 targeting ASOs that use different chemistries respond differently in the various SMA mouse models. We also compare other ASO-based strategies for therapeutic splicing correction in SMA. Given that substantial progress on ASO-based strategies to promote SMN2 exon 7 inclusion in SMA has been made, and that similar approaches in a growing number of genetic diseases are possible, this report has wide implications.
PMCID: PMC3832262  PMID: 24265944
Antisense oligonucleotide; splicing; ISS-N1; ASO; SMA; SMN; PMO; MOE
14.  Early onset muscle weakness and disruption of muscle proteins in mouse models of spinal muscular atrophy 
Skeletal Muscle  2013;3:24.
The childhood neuromuscular disease spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is caused by mutations or deletions of the survival motor neuron (SMN1) gene. Although SMA has traditionally been considered a motor neuron disease, the muscle-specific requirement for SMN has never been fully defined. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to investigate muscle defects in mouse models of SMA.
We have taken advantage of two different mouse models of SMA, the severe Smn-/-;SMN2 mice and the less severe Smn2B/- mice. We have measured the maximal force produced from control muscles and those of SMA model mice by direct stimulation using an ex vivo apparatus. Immunofluorescence and immunoblot experiments were performed to uncover muscle defects in mouse models of SMA. Means from control and SMA model mice samples were compared using an analysis of variance test and Student’s t tests.
We report that tibialis anterior (TA) muscles of phenotype stage Smn-/-;SMN2 mice generate 39% less maximal force than muscles from control mice, independently of aberrant motor neuron signal transmission. In addition, during muscle fatigue, the Smn-/-;SMN2 muscle shows early onset and increased unstimulated force compared with controls. Moreover, we demonstrate a significant decrease in force production in muscles from pre-symptomatic Smn-/-;SMN2 and Smn2B/- mice, indicating that muscle weakness is an early event occurring prior to any overt motor neuron loss and muscle denervation. Muscle weakness in mouse models of SMA was associated with a delay in the transition from neonatal to adult isoforms of proteins important for proper muscle contractions, such as ryanodine receptors and sodium channels. Immunoblot analyses of extracts from hindlimb skeletal muscle revealed aberrant levels of the sarcoplasmic reticulum Ca2+ ATPase.
The findings from this study reveal a delay in the appearance of mature isoforms of proteins important for muscle contractions, as well as muscle weakness early in the disease etiology, thus highlighting the contributions of skeletal muscle defects to the SMA phenotype.
PMCID: PMC3852932  PMID: 24119341
Motor neuron disease; Skeletal muscle; Sodium channels; Ryanodine receptors; SERCA; Spinal muscular atrophy; Survival motor neuron
15.  A Negatively Acting Bifunctional RNA Increases Survival Motor Neuron Both In Vitro and In Vivo 
Human Gene Therapy  2008;19(11):1307-1315.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is an autosomal recessive neuromuscular disorder and is the leading genetic cause of infant mortality. SMA is caused by the loss of survival motor neuron-1 (SMN1). In humans, a nearly identical copy gene is present called SMN2, but this gene cannot compensate for the loss of SMN1 because of a single silent nucleotide difference in SMN2 exon 7. This single-nucleotide difference attenuates an exonic splice enhancer, resulting in the production of an alternatively spliced isoform lacking exon 7, which is essential for protein function. SMN2, however, is a critical disease modifier and is an outstanding target for therapeutic intervention because all SMA patients retain SMN2 and SMN2 maintains the same coding sequence as SMN1. Therefore, compounds or molecules that increase SMN2 exon 7 inclusion hold great promise for SMA therapeutics. Bifunctional RNAs have been previously used to increase SMN protein levels and derive their name from the presence of two domains: an antisense RNA sequence specific to the target RNA and an untethered RNA segment that serves as a binding platform for splicing factors. This study was designed to develop negatively acting bifunctional RNAs that recruit hnRNPA1 to exon 8 and block the general splicing machinery from the exon 8. By blocking the downstream splice site, this could competitively favor the inclusion of SMN exon 7 and therefore increase full-length SMN production. Here we identify a bifunctional RNA that stimulated full-length SMN expression in a variety of cell-based assays including SMA patient fibroblasts. Importantly, this molecule was also able to induce SMN expression in a previously described mouse model of SMA and demonstrates a novel therapeutic approach for SMA as well as a variety of diseases caused by a defect in splicing.
PMCID: PMC2940461  PMID: 19848583
16.  Enhancement of SMN2 Exon 7 Inclusion by Antisense Oligonucleotides Targeting the Exon 
PLoS Biology  2007;5(4):e73.
Several strategies have been pursued to increase the extent of exon 7 inclusion during splicing of SMN2 (survival of motor neuron 2) transcripts, for eventual therapeutic use in spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a genetic neuromuscular disease. Antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs) that target an exon or its flanking splice sites usually promote exon skipping. Here we systematically tested a large number of ASOs with a 2′-O-methoxy-ethyl ribose (MOE) backbone that hybridize to different positions of SMN2 exon 7, and identified several that promote greater exon inclusion, others that promote exon skipping, and still others with complex effects on the accumulation of the two alternatively spliced products. This approach provides positional information about presumptive exonic elements or secondary structures with positive or negative effects on exon inclusion. The ASOs are effective not only in cell-free splicing assays, but also when transfected into cultured cells, where they affect splicing of endogenous SMN transcripts. The ASOs that promote exon 7 inclusion increase full-length SMN protein levels, demonstrating that they do not interfere with mRNA export or translation, despite hybridizing to an exon. Some of the ASOs we identified are sufficiently active to proceed with experiments in SMA mouse models.
Author Summary
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a severe genetic disease that causes motor-neuron degeneration. SMA patients lack a functional SMN1 (survival of motor neuron 1) gene, but they possess an intact SMN2 gene, which though nearly identical to SMN1, is only partially functional. The defect in SMN2 gene expression is at the level of pre-mRNA splicing (skipping of exon 7), and the presence of this gene in all SMA patients makes it an attractive target for potential therapy. Here we have surveyed a large number of antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs) that are complementary to different regions of exon 7 in the SMN2 mRNA. A few of these ASOs are able to correct the pre-mRNA splicing defect, presumably because they bind to regions of exon 7 that form RNA structures, or provide protein-binding sites, that normally weaken the recognition of this exon by the splicing machinery in the cell nucleus. We describe optimal ASOs that promote correct expression of SMN2 mRNA and, therefore, normal SMN protein, in cultured cells from SMA patients. These ASOs can now be tested in mouse models of SMA, and may be useful for SMA therapy.
Mutations inSMN1 cause spinal muscular atrophy; a nearly identical gene is not functional, but becomes functional in vitro and in vivo after addition of antisense oligos.
PMCID: PMC1820610  PMID: 17355180
17.  A cell-autonomous defect in skeletal muscle satellite cells expressing low levels of survival of motor neuron protein 
Developmental biology  2012;368(2):10.1016/j.ydbio.2012.05.037.
Mutations in the Survival of Motor Neuron (SMN) gene underlie the development of spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), which currently represents the leading genetic cause of mortality in infants and toddlers. SMA is characterized by degeneration of spinal cord motor neurons and muscle atrophy. Although SMA is often considered to be a motor neuron disease, accumulating evidence suggests that muscle cells themselves may be affected by low levels of SMN. Here, we examine satellite cells, tissue-resident stem cells that play an essential role in the growth and repair of skeletal muscle, isolated from a severe SMA mouse model (Smn−/−; SMN2+/+). We found similar numbers of satellite cells in the muscles of SMA and wild-type (Smn+/+; SMN2+/+) mice at postnatal day 2 (P2), and, when isolated from skeletal muscle using cell surface marker expression, these cells showed comparable survival and proliferative potential. However, SMA satellite cells differentiate abnormally, revealed by the premature expression of muscle differentiation markers, and, especially, by a reduced efficiency in forming myotubes. These phenotypes suggest a critical role of SMN protein in the intrinsic regulation of muscle differentiation and suggest that abnormal muscle development contributes to the manifestation of SMA symptoms.
PMCID: PMC3851302  PMID: 22705478
Spinal muscular atrophy; Satellite cells; Muscle
18.  A Cell System for Phenotypic Screening of Modifiers of SMN2 Gene Expression and Function 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(8):e71965.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is an inherited neurodegenerative disease caused by homozygous inactivation of the SMN1 gene and reduced levels of the survival motor neuron (SMN) protein. Since higher copy numbers of the nearly identical SMN2 gene reduce disease severity, to date most efforts to develop a therapy for SMA have focused on enhancing SMN expression. Identification of alternative therapeutic approaches has partly been hindered by limited knowledge of potential targets and the lack of cell-based screening assays that serve as readouts of SMN function. Here, we established a cell system in which proliferation of cultured mouse fibroblasts is dependent on functional SMN produced from the SMN2 gene. To do so, we introduced the entire human SMN2 gene into NIH3T3 cell lines in which regulated knockdown of endogenous mouse Smn severely decreases cell proliferation. We found that low SMN2 copy number has modest effects on the cell proliferation phenotype induced by Smn depletion, while high SMN2 copy number is strongly protective. Additionally, cell proliferation correlates with the level of SMN activity in small nuclear ribonucleoprotein assembly. Following miniaturization into a high-throughput format, our cell-based phenotypic assay accurately measures the beneficial effects of both pharmacological and genetic treatments leading to SMN upregulation. This cell model provides a novel platform for phenotypic screening of modifiers of SMN2 gene expression and function that act through multiple mechanisms, and a powerful new tool for studies of SMN biology and SMA therapeutic development.
PMCID: PMC3744461  PMID: 23967270
19.  Molecular and phenotypic reassessment of an infrequently used mouse model for spinal muscular atrophy 
Proximal spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) results from loss of the survival motor neuron 1 (SMN1) gene, with retention of its nearly identical homolog, SMN2. There is a direct correlation between disease severity and SMN2 copy number. Mice do not have a Smn2 gene, and thus cannot naturally replicate the disorder. However, two murine models of SMA have been generated using SMN2-BAC transgenic mice bred onto a mutant Smn background. In these instances mice die shortly after birth, have variable phenotypes within the same litter, or completely correct the SMA phenotype. Both models have been imported to the Jackson Laboratory for distribution to the research community. To ensure that similar results are obtained after importation to The Jackson Laboratory to what was originally reported in the literature, we have begun a molecular and phenotypic evaluation of these mouse models. Here we report our findings for the SMA mouse model that has been deposited by the Li group from Taiwan. These mice, JAX stock number TJL-005058, are homozygous for the SMN2 transgene, Tg(SMN2)2Hung, and a targeted Smn allele that lacks exon 7, Smn1tm1Hung. Our findings are consistent with those reported originally for this line and clarify some of the original data. In addition, we have cloned and mapped the integration site for Tg(SMN2)2Hung to Chromosome 4, and provide a simple genotyping assay that is specific to the junction fragment. Finally, based upon the survival data from our genetic crosses, we suggest that this underused SMA model may be a useful compliment or alternative to the more commonly used “delta7” SMA mouse. We provide breeding schemes in which two genotypes of mice can be generated so that 50% of the litter will be SMA-like pups while 50% will be controls.
PMCID: PMC2814331  PMID: 19961830
Spinal muscular Atrophy; SMA; survival motor neuron; SMN; mouse models
20.  Trans-splicing-mediated improvement in a severe mouse model of spinal muscular atrophy 
Spinal Muscular Atrophy is a leading genetic cause of infantile death and occurs in approximately 1/6000 live births. SMA is caused by the loss of Survival Motor Neuron-1 (SMN1), however, all patients retain at least one copy of a nearly identical gene called SMN2. While SMN2 and SMN1 are comprised of identical coding sequences, the majority of SMN2 transcripts are alternatively spliced, encoding a truncated protein that is unstable and non-functional. Considerable effort has focused upon modulating the SMN2 alternative splicing event since this would produce more wildtype protein. Recently we reported the development of an optimized trans-splicing system that involved the co-expression of a SMN2 trans-splicing RNA and an anti-sense RNA that blocks a downstream splice site in SMN2 pre-mRNA. Here we demonstrate that in vivo delivery of the optimized trans-splicing vector increases an important SMN-dependent activity, snRNP assembly, in disease-relevant tissue in the SMA mouse model. A single injection of the vector into the intracerebral-ventricular space in SMA neonates also lessens the severity of the SMA phenotype in a severe SMA mouse model, extending survival ~70%. Collectively, these results provide the first in vivo demonstration that SMN2 trans-splicing leads to a lessening of the severity of the SMA phenotype and provide evidence for the power of this strategy for reprogramming genetic diseases at the pre-mRNA level.
PMCID: PMC2836862  PMID: 20053895
Survival Motor Neuron (SMN); Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA); trans-splicing; RNA; neurodegeneration; therapeutics
21.  Enhancement of SMN protein levels in a mouse model of spinal muscular atrophy using novel drug-like compounds 
EMBO Molecular Medicine  2013;5(7):1035-1050.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a neurodegenerative disease that causes progressive muscle weakness, which primarily targets proximal muscles. About 95% of SMA cases are caused by the loss of both copies of the SMN1 gene. SMN2 is a nearly identical copy of SMN1, which expresses much less functional SMN protein. SMN2 is unable to fully compensate for the loss of SMN1 in motor neurons but does provide an excellent target for therapeutic intervention. Increased expression of functional full-length SMN protein from the endogenous SMN2 gene should lessen disease severity. We have developed and implemented a new high-throughput screening assay to identify small molecules that increase the expression of full-length SMN from a SMN2 reporter gene. Here, we characterize two novel compounds that increased SMN protein levels in both reporter cells and SMA fibroblasts and show that one increases lifespan, motor function, and SMN protein levels in a severe mouse model of SMA.
PMCID: PMC3721476  PMID: 23740718
drug discovery; SMA; SMN; SMN2; spinal muscular atrophy
22.  A Novel Morpholino Oligomer Targeting ISS-N1 Improves Rescue of Severe Spinal Muscular Atrophy Transgenic Mice 
Human Gene Therapy  2013;24(3):331-342.
In the search for the most efficacious antisense oligonucleotides (AOs) aimed at inducing SMN2 exon 7 inclusion, we systematically assessed three AOs, PMO25 (−10, −34), PMO18 (−10, −27), and PMO20 (−10, −29), complementary to the SMN2 intron 7 splicing silencer (ISS-N1). PMO25 was the most efficacious in augmenting exon 7 inclusion in vitro in spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) patient fibroblasts and in vitro splicing assays. PMO25 and PMO18 were compared further in a mouse model of severe SMA. After a single intracerebroventricular (ICV) injection in neonatal mice, PMO25 increased the life span of severe SMA mice up to 30-fold, with average survival greater by 3-fold compared with PMO18 at a dose of 20 μg/g and 2-fold at 40 μg/g. Exon 7 inclusion was increased in the CNS but not in peripheral tissues. Systemic delivery of PMO25 at birth achieved a similar outcome and produced increased exon 7 inclusion both in the CNS and peripherally. Systemic administration of a 10-μg/g concentration of PMO25 conjugated to an octaguanidine dendrimer (VMO25) increased the life span only 2-fold in neonatal type I SMA mice, although it prevented tail necrosis in mild SMA mice. Higher doses and ICV injection of VMO25 were associated with toxicity. We conclude that (1) the 25-mer AO is more efficient than the 18-mer and 20-mer in modifying SMN2 splicing in vitro; (2) it is more efficient in prolonging survival in SMA mice; and (3) naked Morpholino oligomers are more efficient and safer than the Vivo-Morpholino and have potential for future SMA clinical applications.
Zhou and colleagues systematically examine the efficacy of three different antisense oligonucleotides (AOs) with a morpholino backbone targeting the ISS-N1 sequence of SMN. Of the three AOs examined, they find that a single intracerebral ventricular injection of the 25-mer AO PMO25 increases the life span of severe spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) mice up to 30-fold.
PMCID: PMC3609631  PMID: 23339722
23.  VPAC2 receptor agonist BAY 55-9837 increases SMN protein levels and moderates disease phenotype in severe spinal muscular atrophy mouse models 
Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) is one of the most common inherited causes of infant death and is caused by the loss of functional survival motor neuron (SMN) protein due to mutations or deletion in the SMN1 gene. One of the treatment strategies for SMA is to induce the expression of the protein from the homologous SMN2 gene, a rescuing paralog for SMA.
Methods and results
Here we demonstrate the promise of pharmacological modulation of SMN2 gene by BAY 55-9837, an agonist of the vasoactive intestinal peptide receptor 2 (VPAC2), a member of G protein coupled receptor family. Treatment with BAY 55-9837 lead to induction of SMN protein levels via activation of MAPK14 or p38 pathway in vitro. Importantly, BAY 55-9837 also ameliorated disease phenotype in severe SMA mouse models.
Our findings suggest the VPAC2 pathway is a potential SMA therapeutic target.
PMCID: PMC3895859  PMID: 24405637
p38 pathway; SMN; SMA; VPAC2 receptor agonist; Therapeutics
24.  Prolactin increases SMN expression and survival in a mouse model of severe spinal muscular atrophy via the STAT5 pathway 
The Journal of Clinical Investigation  2011;121(8):3042-3050.
Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is an autosomal recessive neurodegenerative disease that is characterized by the loss of motor neurons, resulting in progressive muscle atrophy. It is caused by the loss of functional survival motor neuron (SMN) protein due to mutations or deletion in the SMN1 gene. A potential treatment strategy for SMA is to upregulate levels of SMN protein. Several agents that activate STAT5 in human and mouse cell lines enhance SMN expression from the SMN2 gene and can compensate, at least in part, for the loss of production of a functional protein from SMN1. Here, we have shown that prolactin (PRL) increases SMN levels via activation of the STAT5 pathway. PRL increased SMN mRNA and protein levels in cultured human and mouse neuronal cells. Administration of STAT5-specific siRNA blocked the effects of PRL, indicating that the PRL-induced transcriptional upregulation of the SMN-encoding gene was mediated by activation of STAT5. Furthermore, systemic administration of PRL to WT mice induced SMN expression in the brain and spinal cord. Critically, PRL treatment increased SMN levels, improved motor function, and enhanced survival in a mouse model of severe SMA. Our results confirm earlier work suggesting STAT5 pathway activators as potential therapeutic compounds for the treatment of SMA and identify PRL as one such promising agent.
PMCID: PMC3148738  PMID: 21785216
25.  Direct central nervous system delivery provides enhanced protection following vector mediated gene replacement in a severe model of Spinal Muscular Atrophy 
Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), an autosomal recessive neuromuscular disorder, is the leading genetic cause of infant mortality. SMA is caused by the homozygous loss of Survival Motor Neuron-1 (SMN1). SMA, however, is not due to complete absence of SMN, rather a low level of functional full-length SMN is produced by a nearly identical copy gene called SMN2. Despite SMN’s ubiquitous expression, motor neurons are preferentially affected by low SMN levels. Recently gene replacement strategies have shown tremendous promise in animal models of SMA. In this study, we used self-complementary Adeno Associated Virus (scAAV) expressing full-length SMN cDNA to compare two different routes of viral delivery in a severe SMA mouse model. This was accomplished by injecting scAAV9-SMN vector intravenously (IV) or intracerebroventricularly (ICV) into SMA mice. Both routes of delivery resulted in a significant increase in lifespan and weight compared to untreated mice with a subpopulation of mice surviving more than 200 days. However, the ICV injected mice gained significantly more weight than their IV treated counterparts. Likewise, survival analysis showed that ICV treated mice displayed fewer early deaths than IV treated animals. Collectively, this report demonstrates that route of delivery is a crucial component of gene therapy treatment for SMA.
PMCID: PMC3259227  PMID: 22172949
Survival Motor Neuron (SMN); Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA); scAAV; gene therapy; neurodegeneration; therapeutics

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