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.
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.