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1.  Oligonucleotide-based strategies to combat polyglutamine diseases 
Nucleic Acids Research  2014;42(11):6787-6810.
Considerable advances have been recently made in understanding the molecular aspects of pathogenesis and in developing therapeutic approaches for polyglutamine (polyQ) diseases. Studies on pathogenic mechanisms have extended our knowledge of mutant protein toxicity, confirmed the toxicity of mutant transcript and identified other toxic RNA and protein entities. One very promising therapeutic strategy is targeting the causative gene expression with oligonucleotide (ON) based tools. This straightforward approach aimed at halting the early steps in the cascade of pathogenic events has been widely tested for Huntington's disease and spinocerebellar ataxia type 3. In this review, we gather information on the use of antisense oligonucleotides and RNA interference triggers for the experimental treatment of polyQ diseases in cellular and animal models. We present studies testing non-allele-selective and allele-selective gene silencing strategies. The latter include targeting SNP variants associated with mutations or targeting the pathologically expanded CAG repeat directly. We compare gene silencing effectors of various types in a number of aspects, including their design, efficiency in cell culture experiments and pre-clinical testing. We discuss advantages, current limitations and perspectives of various ON-based strategies used to treat polyQ diseases.
PMCID: PMC4066792  PMID: 24848018
2.  Splice isoform-specific suppression of the CaV2.1 variant underlying Spinocerebellar ataxia type 6 
Neurobiology of disease  2011;43(3):533-542.
Spinocerebellar ataxia type 6 (SCA6) is an inherited neurodegenerative disease caused by a polyglutamine (polyQ) expansion in the CaV2.1 voltage-gated calcium channel subunit (CACNA1A). There is currently no treatment for this debilitating disorder and thus a pressing need to develop preventative therapies. RNA interference (RNAi) has proven effective at halting disease progression in several models of spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA), including SCA types 1 and 3. However, in SCA6 and other dominantly inherited neurodegenerative disorders, RNAi-based strategies that selectively suppress expression of mutant alleles may be required. Using a CaV2.1 mini-gene reporter system, we found that pathogenic CAG expansions in CaV2.1 enhance splicing activity at the 3′end of the transcript, leading to a CAG repeat length-dependent increase in the levels of a polyQ-encoding CaV2.1 mRNA splice isoform and the resultant disease protein. Taking advantage of this molecular phenomenon, we developed a novel splice isoform-specific (SIS)-RNAi strategy that selectively targets the polyQ-encoding CaV2.1 splice variant. Selective suppression of transiently expressed and endogenous polyQ-encoding CaV2.1 splice variants was achieved in a variety of cell-based models including a human neuronal cell line, using a new artificial miRNA-like delivery system. Moreover, the efficacy of gene silencing correlated with effective intracellular recognition and processing of SIS-RNAi miRNA mimics. These results lend support to the preclinical development of SIS-RNAi as a potential therapy for SCA6 and other dominantly inherited diseases.
PMCID: PMC3169420  PMID: 21550405
3.  Designing siRNA That Distinguish between Genes That Differ by a Single Nucleotide 
PLoS Genetics  2006;2(9):e140.
Small interfering RNAs (siRNAs), the guides that direct RNA interference (RNAi), provide a powerful tool to reduce the expression of a single gene in human cells. Ideally, dominant, gain-of-function human diseases could be treated using siRNAs that specifically silence the mutant disease allele, while leaving expression of the wild-type allele unperturbed. Previous reports suggest that siRNAs can be designed with single nucleotide specificity, but no rational basis for the design of siRNAs with single nucleotide discrimination has been proposed. We systematically identified siRNAs that discriminate between the wild-type and mutant alleles of two disease genes: the human Cu, Zn superoxide dismutase (SOD1) gene, which contributes to the progression of hereditary amyotrophic lateral sclerosis through the gain of a toxic property, and the huntingtin (HTT) gene, which causes Huntington disease when its CAG-repeat region expands beyond approximately 35 repeats. Using cell-free RNAi reactions in Drosophila embryo lysate and reporter assays and microarray analysis of off-target effects in cultured human cells, we identified positions within an siRNA that are most sensitive to mismatches. We also show that purine:purine mismatches imbue an siRNA with greater discriminatory power than other types of base mismatches. siRNAs in which either a G:U wobble or a mismatch is located in the “seed” sequence, the specialized siRNA guide region responsible for target binding, displayed lower levels of selectivity than those in which the mismatch was located 3′ to the seed; this region of an siRNA is critical for target cleavage but not siRNA binding. Our data suggest that siRNAs can be designed to discriminate between the wild-type and mutant alleles of many genes that differ by just a single nucleotide.
First discovered in nematodes, RNA interference (RNAi) has become an essential tool in the study of mammalian gene function. RNAi directed by small interfering RNAs (siRNAs), 21 nt, double-stranded RNAs target complementary mRNAs for destruction. siRNAs can be introduced into mammalian cells grown in culture, or even administered intravenously to rodents or primates, where they repress production of the targeted gene product. Thus, siRNA-directed RNAi has tremendous potential as a human therapeutic strategy. Dominant genetic disorders, in which a mutant allele of a gene causes disease in the presence of a second, normal copy, might be treated with therapeutic siRNAs, provided that the siRNAs could be designed to destroy the mutant, disease-causing mRNA, while leaving the normal mRNA intact. Here, Schwarz and colleagues describe an experimentally validated strategy for the design of such siRNAs. Their design strategy should facilitate the design of siRNAs targeting dominant genetic disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Huntington disease.
PMCID: PMC1560399  PMID: 16965178
4.  RNA toxicity is a component of ataxin-3 degeneration in Drosophila 
Nature  2008;453(7198):1107-1111.
Polyglutamine (polyQ) diseases are a class of dominantly-inherited neurodegenerative disorders caused by the expansion of a CAG repeat encoding glutamine within the coding region of the respective genes 1. The molecular and cellular pathways underlying polyQ-induced neurodegeneration are the focus of much research, and it is widely viewed that toxic activities of the protein, resulting from the abnormally long polyQ tract, cause pathogenesis 2, 3. We now provide evidence for a pathogenic role of the CAG repeat RNA in polyQ toxicity using Drosophila. In a Drosophila screen for modifiers of polyQ degeneration induced by the Spinocerebellar ataxia type 3 (SCA3) protein ataxin-3, we isolated an upregulation allele of muscleblind (mbl), a gene implicated in the RNA toxicity of CUG expansion diseases 4-6. Further analysis indicated that there may be a toxic role of the RNA in polyQ-induced degeneration. We tested the role of the RNA by altering the CAG repeat sequence to an interrupted CAACAG repeat within the polyQ-encoding region; this dramatically mitigated toxicity. In addition, expression of an untranslated CAG repeat of pathogenic length conferred neuronal degeneration. These studies reveal a role for the RNA in polyQ toxicity, highlighting common components in RNA-based and polyQ protein-based trinucleotide repeat expansion diseases.
PMCID: PMC2574630  PMID: 18449188
5.  The Role of Interruptions in polyQ in the Pathology of SCA1 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(7):e1003648.
At least nine dominant neurodegenerative diseases are caused by expansion of CAG repeats in coding regions of specific genes that result in abnormal elongation of polyglutamine (polyQ) tracts in the corresponding gene products. When above a threshold that is specific for each disease the expanded polyQ repeats promote protein aggregation, misfolding and neuronal cell death. The length of the polyQ tract inversely correlates with the age at disease onset. It has been observed that interruption of the CAG tract by silent (CAA) or missense (CAT) mutations may strongly modulate the effect of the expansion and delay the onset age. We have carried out an extensive study in which we have complemented DNA sequence determination with cellular and biophysical models. By sequencing cloned normal and expanded SCA1 alleles taken from our cohort of ataxia patients we have determined sequence variations not detected by allele sizing and observed for the first time that repeat instability can occur even in the presence of CAG interruptions. We show that histidine interrupted pathogenic alleles occur with relatively high frequency (11%) and that the age at onset inversely correlates linearly with the longer uninterrupted CAG stretch. This could be reproduced in a cellular model to support the hypothesis of a linear behaviour of polyQ. We clarified by in vitro studies the mechanism by which polyQ interruption slows down aggregation. Our study contributes to the understanding of the role of polyQ interruption in the SCA1 phenotype with regards to age at disease onset, prognosis and transmission.
Author Summary
Spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder resulting in loss of coordination and balance. It is caused by an expanded repeated DNA sequence (CAG) in the gene ATXN1. The CAG repeat region is normally interrupted by the DNA sequence CAT. Loss of this interruption is believed to cause instability whereby the CAG repeat expands beyond a key threshold resulting, ultimately, in polyglutamine protein aggregation and cell death. Here we examine how interruptions influence pathology in patients and establish a cellular model to support our findings. We distinguish our patients into two sub-groups based on whether or not their expanded CAG repeat stretches contained an interruption. This is not possible with conventional diagnostic techniques. Differentiating the sub-group with no interruptions led to improved accuracy in predicting their age at onset. The other sub-group, with interruptions, reveals a delay in age at onset that shows greater alignment with the longest stretch of CAG repeats. These findings are significant for genetic counselling and prognosis. Our cellular model and in vitro studies confirmed the relationship between disease severity and uninterrupted repeat length and showed that interruptions do not significantly affect the polyglutamine protein aggregation, but do slow down the aggregation rate.
PMCID: PMC3723530  PMID: 23935513
6.  Mechanisms of RNA-induced toxicity in CAG repeat disorders 
Cell Death & Disease  2013;4(8):e752-.
Several inherited neurodegenerative disorders are caused by CAG trinucleotide repeat expansions, which can be located either in the coding region or in the untranslated region (UTR) of the respective genes. Polyglutamine diseases (polyQ diseases) are caused by an expansion of a stretch of CAG repeats within the coding region, translating into a polyQ tract. The polyQ tract expansions result in conformational changes, eventually leading to aggregate formation. It is widely believed that the aggregation of polyQ proteins is linked with disease development. In addition, in the last couple of years, it has been shown that RNA-mediated mechanisms also have a profound role in neurotoxicity in both polyQ diseases and diseases caused by elongated CAG repeat motifs in their UTRs. Here, we review the different molecular mechanisms assigned to mRNAs with expanded CAG repeats. One aspect is the mRNA folding of CAG repeats. Furthermore, pathogenic mechanisms assigned to CAG repeat mRNAs are discussed. First, we discuss mechanisms that involve the sequestration of the diverse proteins to the expanded CAG repeat mRNA molecules. As a result of this, several cellular mechanisms are aberrantly regulated. These include the sequestration of MBNL1, leading to misregulated splicing; sequestration of nucleolin, leading to reduced cellular rRNA; and sequestration of proteins of the siRNA machinery, resulting in the production of short silencing RNAs that affect gene expression. Second, we discuss the effect of expanded CAG repeats on the subcellular localization, transcription and translation of the CAG repeat mRNA itself. Here we focus on the MID1 protein complex that triggers an increased translation of expanded CAG repeat mRNAs and a mechanism called repeat-associated non-ATG translation, which leads to proteins aberrantly translated from CAG repeat mRNAs. In addition, therapeutic approaches for CAG repeat disorders are discussed. Together, all the findings summarized here show that mutant mRNA has a fundamental role in the pathogenesis of CAG repeat diseases.
PMCID: PMC3763438  PMID: 23907466
neurodegeneration; polyglutamine diseases; CAG repeats; RNA–protein interactions; RNA-mediated toxicity
7.  ss-siRNAs allele selectively inhibit ataxin-3 expression: multiple mechanisms for an alternative gene silencing strategy 
Nucleic Acids Research  2013;41(20):9570-9583.
Single-stranded silencing RNAs (ss-siRNAs) provide an alternative approach to gene silencing. ss-siRNAs combine the simplicity and favorable biodistribution of antisense oligonucleotides with robust silencing through RNA interference (RNAi). Previous studies reported potent and allele-selective inhibition of human huntingtin expression by ss-siRNAs that target the expanded CAG repeats within the mutant allele. Mutant ataxin-3, the genetic cause of Machado–Joseph Disease, also contains an expanded CAG repeat. We demonstrate here that ss-siRNAs are allele-selective inhibitors of ataxin-3 expression and then redesign ss-siRNAs to optimize their selectivity. We find that both RNAi-related and non-RNAi-related mechanisms affect gene expression by either blocking translation or affecting alternative splicing. These results have four broad implications: (i) ss-siRNAs will not always behave similarly to analogous RNA duplexes; (ii) the sequences surrounding CAG repeats affect allele-selectivity of anti-CAG oligonucleotides; (iii) ss-siRNAs can function through multiple mechanisms and; and (iv) it is possible to use chemical modification to optimize ss-siRNA properties and improve their potential for drug discovery.
PMCID: PMC3814390  PMID: 23935115
8.  Enhancement of Allele Discrimination by Introduction of Nucleotide Mismatches into siRNA in Allele-Specific Gene Silencing by RNAi 
PLoS ONE  2008;3(5):e2248.
Allele-specific gene silencing by RNA interference (RNAi) is therapeutically useful for specifically inhibiting the expression of disease-associated alleles without suppressing the expression of corresponding wild-type alleles. To realize such allele-specific RNAi (ASP-RNAi), the design and assessment of small interfering RNA (siRNA) duplexes conferring ASP-RNAi is vital; however, it is also difficult. In a previous study, we developed an assay system to assess ASP-RNAi with mutant and wild-type reporter alleles encoding the Photinus and Renilla luciferase genes. In line with experiments using the system, we realized that it is necessary and important to enhance allele discrimination between mutant and corresponding wild-type alleles. Here, we describe the improvement of ASP-RNAi against mutant alleles carrying single nucleotide variations by introducing base substitutions into siRNA sequences, where original variations are present in the central position. Artificially mismatched siRNAs or short-hairpin RNAs (shRNAs) against mutant alleles of the human Prion Protein (PRNP) gene, which appear to be associated with susceptibility to prion diseases, were examined using this assessment system. The data indicates that introduction of a one-base mismatch into the siRNAs and shRNAs was able to enhance discrimination between the mutant and wild-type alleles. Interestingly, the introduced mismatches that conferred marked improvement in ASP-RNAi, appeared to be largely present in the guide siRNA elements, corresponding to the ‘seed region’ of microRNAs. Due to the essential role of the ‘seed region’ of microRNAs in their association with target RNAs, it is conceivable that disruption of the base-pairing interactions in the corresponding seed region, as well as the central position (involved in cleavage of target RNAs), of guide siRNA elements could influence allele discrimination. In addition, we also suggest that nucleotide mismatches at the 3′-ends of sense-strand siRNA elements, which possibly increase the assembly of antisense-strand (guide) siRNAs into RNA-induced silencing complexes (RISCs), may enhance ASP-RNAi in the case of inert siRNA duplexes. Therefore, the data presented here suggest that structural modification of functional portions of an siRNA duplex by base substitution could greatly influence allele discrimination and gene silencing, thereby contributing to enhancement of ASP-RNAi.
PMCID: PMC2373929  PMID: 18493311
9.  Genes and pathways affected by CAG-repeat RNA-based toxicity in Drosophila 
Human Molecular Genetics  2011;20(24):4810-4821.
Spinocerebellar ataxia type 3 is one of the polyglutamine (polyQ) diseases, which are caused by a CAG-repeat expansion within the coding region of the associated genes. The CAG repeat specifies glutamine, and the expanded polyQ domain mutation confers dominant toxicity on the protein. Traditionally, studies have focused on protein toxicity in polyQ disease mechanisms. Recent findings, however, demonstrate that the CAG-repeat RNA, which encodes the toxic polyQ protein, also contributes to the disease in Drosophila. To provide insights into the nature of the RNA toxicity, we extracted brain-enriched RNA from flies expressing a toxic CAG-repeat mRNA (CAG100) and a non-toxic interrupted CAA/G mRNA repeat (CAA/G105) for microarray analysis. This approach identified 160 genes that are differentially expressed specifically in CAG100 flies. Functional annotation clustering analysis revealed several broad ontologies enriched in the CAG100 gene list, including iron ion binding and nucleotide binding. Intriguingly, transcripts for the Hsp70 genes, a powerful suppressor of polyQ and other human neurodegenerative diseases, were also upregulated. We therefore tested and showed that upregulation of heat shock protein 70 mitigates CAG-repeat RNA toxicity. We then assessed whether other modifiers of the pathogenic, expanded Ataxin-3 polyQ protein could also modify the CAG-repeat RNA toxicity. This approach identified the co-chaperone Tpr2, the transcriptional regulator Dpld, and the RNA-binding protein Orb2 as modifiers of both polyQ protein toxicity and CAG-repeat RNA-based toxicity. These findings suggest an overlap in the mechanisms of RNA and protein-based toxicity, providing insights into the pathogenicity of the RNA in polyQ disease.
PMCID: PMC3221540  PMID: 21933837
10.  Allele-Selective Inhibition of Mutant Huntingtin Expression with Antisense Oligonucleotides Targeting the Expanded CAG Repeat 
Biochemistry  2010;49(47):10166-10178.
Huntington's disease (HD) is a currently incurable neurodegenerative disease caused by the expansion of a CAG trinucleotide repeat within the huntingtin (HTT) gene. Therapeutic approaches include selectively inhibiting the expression of the mutated HTT allele while conserving function of the normal allele. We have evaluated a series of antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs) targeted to the expanded CAG repeat within HTT mRNA for their ability to selectively inhibit expression of mutant HTT protein. Several ASOs incorporating a variety of modifications, including bridged nucleic acids and phosphorothioate internucleotide linkages, exhibited allele-selective silencing in patient-derived fibroblasts. Allele-selective ASOs did not affect the expression of other CAG repeat-containing genes and selectivity was observed in cell lines containing minimal CAG repeat lengths representative of most HD patients. Allele-selective ASOs left HTT mRNA intact and did not support ribonuclease H activity in vitro. We observed cooperative binding of multiple ASO molecules to CAG repeat-containing HTT mRNA transcripts in vitro. These results are consistent with a mechanism involving inhibition at the level of translation. ASOs targeted to the CAG repeat of HTT provide a starting point for the development of oligonucleotide-based therapeutics that can inhibit gene expression with allelic discrimination in patients with HD.
PMCID: PMC2991413  PMID: 21028906
Locked nucleic acid (LNA); allele-selective inhibition; Huntington's Disease; huntingtin; antisense oligonucleotide; CAG repeat; triplet repeat
11.  Correlation of Inter-Locus Polyglutamine Toxicity with CAG•CTG Triplet Repeat Expandability and Flanking Genomic DNA GC Content 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(12):e28260.
Dynamic expansions of toxic polyglutamine (polyQ)-encoding CAG repeats in ubiquitously expressed, but otherwise unrelated, genes cause a number of late-onset progressive neurodegenerative disorders, including Huntington disease and the spinocerebellar ataxias. As polyQ toxicity in these disorders increases with repeat length, the intergenerational expansion of unstable CAG repeats leads to anticipation, an earlier age-at-onset in successive generations. Crucially, disease associated alleles are also somatically unstable and continue to expand throughout the lifetime of the individual. Interestingly, the inherited polyQ length mediating a specific age-at-onset of symptoms varies markedly between disorders. It is widely assumed that these inter-locus differences in polyQ toxicity are mediated by protein context effects. Previously, we demonstrated that the tendency of expanded CAG•CTG repeats to undergo further intergenerational expansion (their ‘expandability’) also differs between disorders and these effects are strongly correlated with the GC content of the genomic flanking DNA. Here we show that the inter-locus toxicity of the expanded polyQ tracts of these disorders also correlates with both the expandability of the underlying CAG repeat and the GC content of the genomic DNA flanking sequences. Inter-locus polyQ toxicity does not correlate with properties of the mRNA or protein sequences, with polyQ location within the gene or protein, or steady state transcript levels in the brain. These data suggest that the observed inter-locus differences in polyQ toxicity are not mediated solely by protein context effects, but that genomic context is also important, an effect that may be mediated by modifying the rate at which somatic expansion of the DNA delivers proteins to their cytotoxic state.
PMCID: PMC3232215  PMID: 22163004
12.  Allele-specific silencing of mutant Huntington’s disease gene 
Journal of neurochemistry  2009;108(1):82-90.
Huntington’s disease (HD) is an autosomal-dominant neurodegenerative disorder caused by a poly-glutamine expansion in huntingtin, the protein encoded by the HD gene. PolyQ-expanded huntingtin is toxic to neurons, especially the medium spiny neurons (MSNs) of the striatum. At the same time, wild-type huntingtin has important -- indeed essential -- protective functions. Any effective molecular therapy must preserve the expression of wild-type huntingtin, while silencing the mutant allele. We hypothesized that an appropriate siRNA molecule would display the requisite specificity and efficacy. As RNA interference is incapable of distinguishing among alleles with varying numbers of CAG (glutamine) codons, another strategy is needed. We used HD fibroblasts in which the pathogenic mutation is linked to a polymorphic site: the Δ2642 deletion of one of four tandem GAG triplets. We silenced expression of the harmful Δ2642-marked polyQ-expanded huntingtin without compromising synthesis of its wild-type counterpart. Following this success in HD fibroblasts, we obtained similar results with neuroblastoma cells expressing both wild-type and mutant HD genes. As opposed to the effect of depleting wild-type huntingtin, specifically silencing the mutant species actually lowered caspase-3 activation and protected HD cells under stress conditions. These findings have therapeutic implications not only for HD, but also for other autosomal dominant diseases. This approach has great promise: it may lead to personalized genetic therapy, a holy grail in contemporary medicine.
PMCID: PMC3166352  PMID: 19094060
Huntington’s disease; polymorphism; siRNA; allele-specific
13.  Five siRNAs targeting three SNPs in Huntingtin may provide therapy for three-quarters of Huntington’s disease patients 
Current biology : CB  2009;19(9):774-778.
Among dominant neurodegenerative disorders, Huntington’s disease (HD) is perhaps the best candidate for treatment with small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) [1–9]. Invariably fatal, HD is caused by expansion of a CAG repeat in the Huntingtin gene, creating an extended polyglutamine tract that makes the Huntingtin protein toxic [10]. Silencing mutant Huntingtin mRNA should provide therapeutic benefit, but no siRNA strategy can yet distinguish among the normal and disease Huntingtin alleles and other mRNAs containing CAG repeats [11]. siRNAs targeting the disease isoform of a heterozygous single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) in Huntingtin provide an alternative [12–16], because such siRNAs should preserve expression of normal Huntingtin, which likely contributes to neuronal function [17–19]. We sequenced 22 predicted SNP sites in 225 human samples corresponding to HD and control subjects. We find that 48% of our patient population is heterozygous at a single SNP site; one isoform of this SNP is associated with HD. Several other SNP sites are frequently heterozygous. Consequently, five allele-specific siRNAs, corresponding to just three SNP sites, could be used to treat three-quarters of the United States and European HD patient populations. We have designed and validated selective siRNAs for the three SNP sites, laying the foundation for allele-specific RNAi therapy for HD.
PMCID: PMC2746439  PMID: 19361997
14.  A Novel Antisense CAG Repeat Transcript at JPH3 Locus Mediating Expanded Polyglutamine Protein Toxicity in Huntington’s Disease-Like 2 (HDL2) Mice 
Neuron  2011;70(3):427-440.
Huntington’s disease like-2 (HDL2) is a phenocopy of Huntington’s disease caused by CTG/CAG repeat expansion at the Junctophilin-3 (JPH3) locus. The mechanisms underlying HDL2 pathogenesis remain unclear. Here we developed a BAC transgenic mouse model of HDL2 (BAC-HDL2) that exhibits progressive motor deficits, selective neurodegenerative pathology and ubiquitin-positive nuclear inclusions (NIs). Molecular analyses reveal a novel promoter at the transgene locus driving the expression of a CAG repeat transcript (HDL2-CAG) from the strand antisense to JPH3, which encodes an expanded polyglutamine (polyQ) protein. Importantly, BAC-HDL2 but not control BAC mice accumulate polyQ-containing NIs in a pattern strikingly similar to those in the patients. Furthermore, BAC mice with genetic silencing of the expanded CUG transcript still express HDL2-CAG transcript and manifest polyQ pathogenesis. Finally, studies of HDL2 mice and patients revealed CBP sequestration into NIs and evidence for interference of CBP-mediated transcriptional activation. These results suggest overlapping polyQ-mediated pathogenic mechanisms in HD and HDL2
PMCID: PMC3107122  PMID: 21555070
15.  D-polyglutamine amyloid recruits L-polyglutamine monomers and kills cells 
Journal of molecular biology  2013;426(4):816-829.
Polyglutamine (polyQ) amyloid fibrils are observed in disease tissue and have been implicated as toxic agents responsible for neurodegeneration in expanded CAG repeat diseases like Huntington’s disease (HD). Despite intensive efforts, the mechanism of amyloid toxicity remains unknown. As a novel approach to probing polyQ toxicity, we investigate here how some cellular and physical properties of polyQ amyloid vary with the chirality of the glutamine residues in the polyQ. We challenged PC12 cells with small amyloid fibrils composed of either L- or D-polyQ peptides and found that D-fibrils are as cytotoxic as L-fibrils. We also found using fluorescence microscopy that both aggregates effectively seed the aggregation of cell-produced L-polyQ proteins, suggesting a surprising lack of stereochemical restriction in seeded elongation of polyQ amyloid. To investigate this effect further, we studied chemically synthesized D- and L-polyQ in vitro. We found that, as expected, D-polyQ monomers are not recognized by proteins that recognize L-polyQ monomers. However, amyloid fibrils prepared from D-polyQ peptides can efficiently seed the aggregation of L-polyQ monomers in vitro, and vice versa. This result is consistent with our cell results on polyQ recruitment, but is inconsistent with previous literature reports on the chiral specificity of amyloid seeding. This chiral cross-seeding can be rationalized by a model for seeded elongation featuring a “rippled β-sheet” interface between seed fibril and docked monomers of opposite chirality. The lack of chiral discrimination in polyQ amyloid cytotoxicity is consistent with several toxicity mechanisms, including recruitment of cellular polyQ proteins.
PMCID: PMC3910295  PMID: 24291210
chiral cross-seeding; rippled β-sheet; toxicity; recruitment; Huntington’s disease
16.  Self-duplexing CUG repeats selectively inhibit mutant huntingtin expression 
Nucleic Acids Research  2013;41(22):10426-10437.
Huntington’s disease (HD) is a neurodegenerative genetic disorder caused by the expansion of the CAG repeat in the translated sequence of the HTT gene. This expansion generates a mutant huntingtin protein that contains an abnormally elongated polyglutamine tract, which, together with mutant transcript, causes cellular dysfunction. Currently, there is no curative treatment available to patients suffering from HD; however, the selective inhibition of the mutant allele expression is a promising therapeutic option. In this study, we developed a new class of CAG repeat-targeting silencing reagents that consist of self-duplexing CUG repeats. Self-duplex formation was induced through one or several U-base substitutions. A number of self-duplexing guide-strand-only short interfering RNAs have been tested through transfection into cells derived from HD patients, showing distinct activity profiles. The best reagents were highly discriminatory between the normal and mutant HTT alleles (allele selectivity) and the HTT transcript and other transcripts containing shorter CAG repeats (gene selectivity). We also demonstrated that the self-duplexing CUG repeat short interfering RNAs use the RNA interference pathway to elicit silencing, and repeat-targeting reagents showed similar activity and selectivity when expressed from short hairpin RNA vectors to achieve more durable silencing effects.
PMCID: PMC3905887  PMID: 24038471
17.  Molecular Pathogenesis and Cellular Pathology of Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 7 Neurodegeneration 
Cerebellum (London, England)  2008;7(2):138-149.
Spinocerebellar ataxia type 7 (SCA7) is unique among CAG / polyglutamine (polyQ) repeat diseases due to dramatic intergenerational instability in repeat length and an associated cone-rod dystrophy retinal degeneration phenotype. SCA7 is caused by a polyQ expansion in the protein ataxin-7. Like other neurodegenerative diseases caused by polyQ expansion mutations, the spectrum of clinical severity and disease progression worsens with increasing polyQ length. Several potential mechanisms for the molecular pathogenesis of polyQ-expanded ataxin-7 have been suggested. These include, but are not limited to, alteration of endogenous ataxin-7 function, abnormal processing and stability of polyQ ataxin-7, and alteration of transcriptional regulation via interaction of polyQ-expanded ataxin-7 with other transcriptional regulators. Ataxin-7's normal function as a transcription factor may contribute to the selective vulnerability of specific cellular populations in SCA7, and the resolution of the mechanistic basis of this pathogenic cascade is a major focus of SCA7 disease research. PolyQ-expanded ataxin-7 can cause non-cell autonomous neurodegeneration in cerebellar Purkinje cells. Advances in understanding SCA7's molecular basis have led to important insights into cell-type specific neurodegeneration. We expect that further study of ataxin-7 normal function, insights into the molecular basis of SCA7 neurodegeneration, and the development of therapeutic interventions for SCA7 will greatly influence related endeavors directed at other CAG / polyQ repeat diseases.
PMCID: PMC4195584  PMID: 18418675
18.  Evolution and function of CAG/polyglutamine repeats in protein–protein interaction networks 
Nucleic Acids Research  2012;40(10):4273-4287.
Expanded runs of consecutive trinucleotide CAG repeats encoding polyglutamine (polyQ) stretches are observed in the genes of a large number of patients with different genetic diseases such as Huntington's and several Ataxias. Protein aggregation, which is a key feature of most of these diseases, is thought to be triggered by these expanded polyQ sequences in disease-related proteins. However, polyQ tracts are a normal feature of many human proteins, suggesting that they have an important cellular function. To clarify the potential function of polyQ repeats in biological systems, we systematically analyzed available information stored in sequence and protein interaction databases. By integrating genomic, phylogenetic, protein interaction network and functional information, we obtained evidence that polyQ tracts in proteins stabilize protein interactions. This happens most likely through structural changes whereby the polyQ sequence extends a neighboring coiled-coil region to facilitate its interaction with a coiled-coil region in another protein. Alteration of this important biological function due to polyQ expansion results in gain of abnormal interactions, leading to pathological effects like protein aggregation. Our analyses suggest that research on polyQ proteins should shift focus from expanded polyQ proteins into the characterization of the influence of the wild-type polyQ on protein interactions.
PMCID: PMC3378862  PMID: 22287626
19.  PolyQ Repeat Expansions in ATXN2 Associated with ALS Are CAA Interrupted Repeats 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(3):e17951.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a devastating, rapidly progressive disease leading to paralysis and death. Recently, intermediate length polyglutamine (polyQ) repeats of 27–33 in ATAXIN-2 (ATXN2), encoding the ATXN2 protein, were found to increase risk for ALS. In ATXN2, polyQ expansions of ≥34, which are pure CAG repeat expansions, cause spinocerebellar ataxia type 2. However, similar length expansions that are interrupted with other codons, can present atypically with parkinsonism, suggesting that configuration of the repeat sequence plays an important role in disease manifestation in ATXN2 polyQ expansion diseases. Here we determined whether the expansions in ATXN2 associated with ALS were pure or interrupted CAG repeats, and defined single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) rs695871 and rs695872 in exon 1 of the gene, to assess haplotype association. We found that the expanded repeat alleles of 40 ALS patients and 9 long-repeat length controls were all interrupted, bearing 1–3 CAA codons within the CAG repeat. 21/21 expanded ALS chromosomes with 3CAA interruptions arose from one haplotype (GT), while 18/19 expanded ALS chromosomes with <3CAA interruptions arose from a different haplotype (CC). Moreover, age of disease onset was significantly earlier in patients bearing 3 interruptions vs fewer, and was distinct between haplotypes. These results indicate that CAG repeat expansions in ATXN2 associated with ALS are uniformly interrupted repeats and that the nature of the repeat sequence and haplotype, as well as length of polyQ repeat, may play a role in the neurological effect conferred by expansions in ATXN2.
PMCID: PMC3066214  PMID: 21479228
20.  Molecular Origin of Polyglutamine Aggregation in Neurodegenerative Diseases  
PLoS Computational Biology  2005;1(3):e30.
Expansion of polyglutamine (polyQ) tracts in proteins results in protein aggregation and is associated with cell death in at least nine neurodegenerative diseases. Disease age of onset is correlated with the polyQ insert length above a critical value of 35–40 glutamines. The aggregation kinetics of isolated polyQ peptides in vitro also shows a similar critical-length dependence. While recent experimental work has provided considerable insights into polyQ aggregation, the molecular mechanism of aggregation is not well understood. Here, using computer simulations of isolated polyQ peptides, we show that a mechanism of aggregation is the conformational transition in a single polyQ peptide chain from random coil to a parallel β-helix. This transition occurs selectively in peptides longer than 37 glutamines. In the β-helices observed in simulations, all residues adopt β-strand backbone dihedral angles, and the polypeptide chain coils around a central helical axis with 18.5 ± 2 residues per turn. We also find that mutant polyQ peptides with proline-glycine inserts show formation of antiparallel β-hairpins in their ground state, in agreement with experiments. The lower stability of mutant β-helices explains their lower aggregation rates compared to wild type. Our results provide a molecular mechanism for polyQ-mediated aggregation.
Nine human diseases, including Huntington's disease, are associated with an expanded trinucleotide sequence CAG in genes. Since CAG codes for the amino acid glutamine, these disorders are collectively known as polyglutamine diseases. Although the genes (and proteins) involved in different polyglutamine diseases have little in common, the disorders they cause follow a strikingly similar course: If the length of the expansion exceeds a critical value of 35–40, the greater the number of glutamine repeats in a protein, the earlier the onset of disease and the more severe the symptoms. This fact suggests that abnormally long glutamine tracts render their host protein toxic to nerve cells, and all polyglutamine diseases are hypothesized to progress via common molecular mechanisms. One possible mechanism of cell death is that the abnormally long sequence of glutamines acquires a shape that prevents the host protein from folding into its proper shape. What is the structure acquired by polyglutamine and what is the molecular basis of the observed threshold repeat length? Using computer models of polyglutamine, the authors show that if, and only if, the length of polyglutamine repeats is longer than the critical value found in disease, it acquires a specific shape called a β-helix. The longer the glutamine tract length, the higher is the propensity to form β-helices. This length-dependent formation of β-helices by polyglutamine stretches may provide a unified molecular framework for understanding the structural basis of different trinucleotide repeat-associated diseases.
PMCID: PMC1193989  PMID: 16158094
21.  Genetic Variance in the Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 2 (ATXN2) Gene in Children with Severe Early Onset Obesity 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(12):e8280.
Expansion of a CAG repeat in the coding region of exon 1 in the ATXN2 gene located in human chromosome 12q24.1 causes the neurodegenerative disease spinocerebellar ataxia type 2 (SCA2). In contrast to other polyglutamine (polyQ) disorders, the SCA2 repeat is not highly polymorphic in central European (CEU) controls with Q22 representing 90% of alleles, and Q23 contributing between 5–7% of alleles. Recently, the ATXN2 CAG repeat has been identified as a target of adaptive selection in the CEU population. Mouse lines deficient for atxn2 develop marked hyperphagia and obesity raising the possibility that loss-of-function mutations in the ATXN2 gene may be related to energy balance in humans. Some linkage studies of obesity related phenotypes such as antipsychotic induced weight gain have reported significant lod scores on chromosome 12q24. We tested the hypothesis that rare loss-of-function ATXN2 variants cause obesity analogous to rare mutations in the leptin, leptin receptor and MC4R genes.
Methodology/Principal Findings
We sequenced the coding region of ATXN2 including intron-exon boundaries in 92 severely obese children with a body mass index (BMI) >3.2 standard deviations above age- and gender-adjusted means. We confirmed five previously identified single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and three new SNPs resulting in two synonymous substitutions and one intronic polymorphism. Alleles encoding >Q22 were overrepresented in our sample of obese children and contributed 15% of alleles in children identified by their parents as white. SNP rs695872 closely flanking the CAG repeat showed a greatly increased frequency of C/C homozygotes and G/C heterozygotes compared with reported frequencies in the CEU population.
Although we did not identify variants leading to novel amino acid substitutions, nonsense or frameshift mutations, this study warrants further examination of variation in the ATXN2 gene in obesity and related phenotypes in a larger case-control study with emphasis on rs695872 and CAG repeat structure.
PMCID: PMC2791421  PMID: 20016785
22.  The Interplay between PolyQ and Protein Context Delays Aggregation by Forming a Reservoir of Protofibrils 
PLoS ONE  2006;1(1):e111.
Polyglutamine (polyQ) diseases are inherited neurodegenerative disorders caused by the expansion of CAG codon repeats, which code for polyQ in the corresponding gene products. These diseases are associated with the presence of amyloid-like protein aggregates, induced by polyQ expansion. It has been suggested that the soluble aggregates rather than the mature fibrillar aggregates are the toxic species, and that the aggregation properties of polyQ can be strongly modulated by the surrounding protein context. To assess the importance of the protein carrier in polyQ aggregation, we have studied the misfolding pathway and the kinetics of aggregation of polyQ of lengths above (Q41) and below (Q22) the pathological threshold fused to the well-characterized protein carrier glutathione S-transferase (GST). This protein, chosen as a model system, is per se able to misfold and aggregate irreversibly, thus mimicking the behaviour of domains of naturally occurring polyQ proteins. We prove that, while it is generally accepted that the aggregation kinetics of polyQ depend on its length and are faster for longer polyQ tracts, the presence of GST alters the polyQ aggregation pathway and reverses this trend. Aggregation occurs through formation of a reservoir of soluble intermediates whose populations and kinetic stabilities increase with polyQ length. Our results provide a new model that explains the toxicity of expanded polyQ proteins, in which the interplay between polyQ regions and other aggregation-prone domains plays a key role in determining the aggregation pathway.
PMCID: PMC1762411  PMID: 17205115
23.  Evidence for a recruitment and sequestration mechanism in Huntington's disease. 
Polyglutamine (polyQ) extension in the coding sequence of mutant huntingtin causes neuronal degeneration associated with the formation of insoluble polyQ aggregates in Huntington's disease. We constructed an array of CAG/CAA triplet repeats, coding for a range of 25-300 glutamine residues, which was used to generate expression constructs with minimal flanking sequence. Normal-length (25 glutamine residues) polyQ did not aggregate when transfected alone. Remarkably, when co-transfected with extended (100-300 glutamine residues) polyQ tracts, normal-length polyQ-containing peptides were trapped in insoluble detergent-resistant aggregates. Aggregates formed in the cytoplasm but were visible in the nucleus only when a strong nuclear localization signal was present. Intermolecular interactions between polyQ tracts mediated the localization of heterogeneous aggregates into the nucleolus by nucleolin protein. Our results suggest that extended polyQ can interact with cellular polyQ-containing proteins, transport them to ectopic cellular locations, and form heterogeneous polyQ aggregates. We provide evidence for a recruitment mechanism for pathogenesis in the polyQ neurodegenerative disorders. In susceptible cells, extended polyQ tracts in huntingtin might interact with and sequester or deplete certain endogenous polyQ-containing cellular proteins.
PMCID: PMC1692605  PMID: 10434302
24.  Design of RNAi Hairpins for Mutation-Specific Silencing of Ataxin-7 and Correction of a SCA7 Phenotype 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(9):e7232.
Spinocerebellar ataxia type 7 is a polyglutamine disorder caused by an expanded CAG repeat mutation that results in neurodegeneration. Since no treatment exists for this chronic disease, novel therapies such post-transcriptional RNA interference-based gene silencing are under investigation, in particular those that might enable constitutive and tissue-specific silencing, such as expressed hairpins. Given that this method of silencing can be abolished by the presence of nucleotide mismatches against the target RNA, we sought to identify expressed RNA hairpins selective for silencing the mutant ataxin-7 transcript using a linked SNP. By targeting both short and full-length tagged ataxin-7 sequences, we show that mutation-specific selectivity can be obtained with single nucleotide mismatches to the wild-type RNA target incorporated 3′ to the centre of the active strand of short hairpin RNAs. The activity of the most effective short hairpin RNA incorporating the nucleotide mismatch at position 16 was further studied in a heterozygous ataxin-7 disease model, demonstrating significantly reduced levels of toxic mutant ataxin-7 protein with decreased mutant protein aggregation and retention of normal wild-type protein in a non-aggregated diffuse cellular distribution. Allele-specific mutant ataxin7 silencing was also obtained with the use of primary microRNA mimics, the most highly effective construct also harbouring the single nucleotide mismatch at position 16, corroborating our earlier findings. Our data provide understanding of RNA interference guide strand anatomy optimised for the allele-specific silencing of a polyglutamine mutation linked SNP and give a basis for the use of allele-specific RNA interference as a viable therapeutic approach for spinocerebellar ataxia 7.
PMCID: PMC2747278  PMID: 19789634
25.  RNA interference gene therapy in dominant retinitis pigmentosa and cone-rod dystrophy mouse models caused by GCAP1 mutations 
RNA interference (RNAi) knockdown is an efficacious therapeutic strategy for silencing genes causative for dominant retinal dystrophies. To test this, we used self-complementary (sc) AAV2/8 vector to develop an RNAi-based therapy in two dominant retinal degeneration mouse models. The allele-specific model expresses transgenic bovine GCAP1(Y99C) establishing a rapid RP-like phenotype, whereas the nonallele-specific model expresses mouse GCAP1(L151F) producing a slowly progressing cone-rod dystrophy (CORD). The late onset GCAP1(L151F)-CORD mimics the dystrophy observed in human GCAP1-CORD patients. Subretinal injection of scAAV2/8 carrying shRNA expression cassettes specific for bovine or mouse guanylate cyclase-activating protein 1 (GCAP1) showed strong expression at 1 week post-injection. In both allele-specific [GCAP1(Y99C)-RP] and nonallele-specific [GCAP1(L151F)-CORD] models of dominant retinal dystrophy, RNAi-mediated gene silencing enhanced photoreceptor survival, delayed onset of degeneration and improved visual function. Such results provide a “proof of concept” toward effective RNAi-based gene therapy mediated by scAAV2/8 for dominant retinal disease based on GCAP1 mutation. Further, nonallele-specific RNAi knockdown of GCAP1 may prove generally applicable toward the rescue of any human GCAP1-based dominant cone-rod dystrophy.
PMCID: PMC3985072  PMID: 24778606
photoreceptor guanylate cyclase; guanylate cyclase-activating protein 1; short-hairpin RNA; RNA interference; self-complementary adeno-associated virus; cone-rod dystrophy; retinitis pigmentosa

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