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1.  EMILIN1/α9β1 Integrin Interaction Is Crucial in Lymphatic Valve Formation and Maintenance 
Molecular and Cellular Biology  2013;33(22):4381-4394.
Lymphatic vasculature plays a crucial role in the maintenance of tissue interstitial fluid balance. The role of functional collecting lymphatic vessels in lymph transport has been recently highlighted in pathologies leading to lymphedema, for which treatments are currently unavailable. Intraluminal valves are of paramount importance in this process. However, valve formation and maturation have not been entirely elucidated yet, in particular, the role played by the extracellular matrix (ECM). We hypothesized that EMILIN1, an ECM multidomain glycoprotein, regulates lymphatic valve formation and maintenance. Using a mouse knockout model, we show that in the absence of EMILIN1, mice exhibit defects in lymphatic valve structure and in lymph flow. By applying morphometric in vitro and in vivo functional assays, we conclude that this impaired phenotype depends on the lack of α9β1 integrin engagement, the specific lymphatic endothelial cell receptor for EMILIN1, and the ensuing derangement of cell proliferation and migration. Our data demonstrate a fundamental role for EMILIN1-integrin α9 interaction in lymphatic vasculature, especially in lymphatic valve formation and maintenance, and underline the importance of this ECM component in displaying a regulatory function in proliferation and acting as a “guiding” molecule in migration of lymphatic endothelial cells.
PMCID: PMC3838180  PMID: 24019067
2.  Ultrastructural changes in muscle cells of patients with collagen VI-related myopathies 
Collagen VI is an extracellular matrix protein expressed in several tissues including skeletal muscle. Mutations in COL6A genes cause Bethlem Myopathy (BM), Ullrich Congenital Muscular Dystrophy (UCMD) and Myosclerosis Myopathy (MM). Collagen VI deficiency causes increased opening of the mitochondrial permeability transition pore (mPTP), leading to ultrastructural and functional alterations of mitochondria, amplified by impairment of autophagy. Here we report for the first time ultrastructural studies on muscle biopsies from BM and UCMD patients, showing swollen mitochondria with hypodense matrix, disorganized cristae and paracrystalline inclusions, associated with dilated sarcoplasmic reticulum and apoptotic changes. These data were supported by scanning electron microscopy analysis on BM and UCMD cultured cells, showing alterations of the mitochondrial network. Morphometric analysis also revealed a reduced short axis and depicted swelling in about 3% of mitochondria. These data demonstrate that mitochondrial defects underlie the pathogenetic mechanism in muscle tissue of patients affected by collagen VI myopathies.
PMCID: PMC3940501  PMID: 24596691
collagen VI; mitochondria; mPTP; scanning electron microscopy back-scattered imaging; transmission electron microscopy
3.  Aggresome–Autophagy Involvement in a Sarcopenic Patient with Rigid Spine Syndrome and a p.C150R Mutation in FHL1 Gene 
The four-and-half LIM domain protein 1 (FHL1) is highly expressed in skeletal and cardiac muscle. Mutations of the FHL1 gene have been associated with diverse chronic myopathies including reducing body myopathy, rigid spine syndrome (RSS), and Emery–Dreifuss muscular dystrophy. We investigated a family with a mutation (p.C150R) in the second LIM domain of FHL1. In this family, a brother and a sister were affected by RSS, and their mother had mild lower limbs weakness. The 34-year-old female had an early and progressive rigidity of the cervical spine and severe respiratory insufficiency. Muscle mass evaluated by DXA was markedly reduced, while fat mass was increased to 40%. CT scan showed an almost complete substitution of muscle by fibro-adipose tissue. Muscle biopsy showed accumulation of FHL1 throughout the cytoplasm and around myonuclei into multiprotein aggregates with aggresome/autophagy features as indicated by ubiquitin, p62, and LC3 labeling. DNA deposits, not associated with nuclear lamina components and histones, were also detected in the aggregates, suggesting nuclear degradation. Ultrastructural analysis showed the presence of dysmorphic nuclei, accumulation of tubulofilamentous and granular material, and perinuclear accumulation of autophagic vacuoles. These data point to involvement of the aggresome–autophagy pathway in the pathophysiological mechanism underlying the muscle pathology of FHL1 C150R mutation.
PMCID: PMC4137286  PMID: 25191266
myopathy; sarcopenia; FHL1; autophagy; protein aggregates
4.  Melanocytes from Patients Affected by Ullrich Congenital Muscular Dystrophy and Bethlem Myopathy have Dysfunctional Mitochondria That Can be Rescued with Cyclophilin Inhibitors 
Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy and Bethlem myopathy are caused by mutations in collagen VI (ColVI) genes, which encode an extracellular matrix protein; yet, mitochondria play a major role in disease pathogenesis through a short circuit caused by inappropriate opening of the permeability transition pore, a high-conductance channel, which causes a shortage in ATP production. We find that melanocytes do not produce ColVI yet they bind it at the cell surface, suggesting that this protein may play a trophic role and that its absence may cause lesions similar to those seen in skeletal muscle. We show that mitochondria in melanocytes of Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy and Bethlem myopathy patients display increased size, reduced matrix density, and disrupted cristae, findings that suggest a functional impairment. In keeping with this hypothesis, mitochondria (i) underwent anomalous depolarization after inhibition of the F-ATP synthase with oligomycin, and (ii) displayed decreased respiratory reserve capacity. The non-immunosuppressive cyclophilin inhibitor NIM811 prevented mitochondrial depolarization in response to oligomycin in melanocytes from both Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy and Bethlem myopathy patients, and partially restored the respiratory reserve of melanocytes from one Bethlem myopathy patient. These results match our recent findings on melanocytes from patients affected by Duchenne muscular dystrophy (Pellegrini et al., 2013), and suggest that skin biopsies may represent a minimally invasive tool to investigate mitochondrial dysfunction and to evaluate drug efficacy in ColVI-related myopathies and possibly in other muscle wasting conditions like aging sarcopenia.
PMCID: PMC4238408  PMID: 25477819
collagen VI; muscular dystrophy; mitochondria; melanocytes; permeability transition; cyclophilin inhibitors
5.  Biodistribution and Molecular Studies on Orally Administered Nanoparticle-AON Complexes Encapsulated with Alginate Aiming at Inducing Dystrophin Rescue in mdx Mice 
BioMed Research International  2013;2013:527418.
We have previously demonstrated that intraperitoneal injections of 2′-O-methyl-phosphorothioate (2′OMePS) antisense oligoribonucleotides adsorbed onto a cationic core-shell nanoparticles (NPs), termed ZM2, provoke dystrophin restoration in the muscles of mdx mice. The aim of the present work was to evaluate the oral route as an alternative way of administration for ZM2-antisense oligoribonucleotides complexes. The biodistribution and elimination of nanoparticles were evaluated after single and multiple oral doses of IR-dye conjugated nanoparticles. Labeled nanoparticles were tracked in vivo as well as in tissue cryosections, urines and feces by Odyssey infrared imaging system, and revealed a permanence in the intestine and abdominal lymph nodes for 72 hours to 7 days before being eliminated. We subsequently tested alginate-free and alginate-encapsulated ZM2-antisense oligoribonucleotides (AON) complexes orally administered 2 and 3 times per week, respectively, in mdx mice for a total of 12 weeks. Treatment with alginate ZM2-AON induced a slight dystrophin rescue in diaphragm and intestine smooth muscles, while no dystrophin was detected in alginate-free ZM2-AON treated mice. These data encourage further experiments on oral administration testing of NP and AON complexes, possibly translatable in oligoribonucleotides-mediated molecular therapies.
PMCID: PMC3874323  PMID: 24392452
6.  Antisense-Induced Messenger Depletion Corrects a COL6A2 Dominant Mutation in Ullrich Myopathy 
Human Gene Therapy  2012;23(12):1313-1318.
Collagen VI gene mutations cause Ullrich and Bethlem muscular dystrophies. Pathogenic mutations frequently have a dominant negative effect, with defects in collagen VI chain secretion and assembly. It is agreed that, conversely, collagen VI haploinsufficiency has no pathological consequences. Thus, RNA-targeting approaches aimed at preferentially inactivating the mutated COL6 messenger may represent a promising therapeutic strategy. By in vitro studies we obtained the preferential depletion of the mutated COL6A2 messenger, by targeting a common single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), cistronic with a dominant COL6A2 mutation. We used a 2′-O-methyl phosphorothioate (2′OMePS) antisense oligonucleotide covering the SNP within exon 3, which is out of frame. Exon 3 skipping has the effect of depleting the mutated transcript via RNA nonsense-mediated decay, recovering the correct collagen VI secretion and restoring the ability to form an interconnected microfilament network into the extracellular matrix. This novel RNA modulation approach to correcting dominant mutations may represent a therapeutic strategy potentially applicable to a great variety of mutations and diseases.
Gualandi and colleagues deplete defective mRNA transcripts of the gene encoding one of the collagen VI α chains (COL6A2) by using an antisense oligonucleotide covering a single-nucleotide polymorphism to achieve skipping of COL6A2 exon 3. Exon 3 skipping was confirmed and resulted in reduced expression of the mutated transcript via RNA nonsense-mediated decay. Histology and electron microscopy studies showed recovery of functional secretion of collagen VI as well as integration of collagen VI into the extracellular matrix.
PMCID: PMC3523246  PMID: 22992134
7.  Characterization of a rare case of Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy due to truncating mutations within the COL6A1 gene C-Terminal domain: a case report 
BMC Medical Genetics  2013;14:59.
Mutations within the C-terminal region of the COL6A1 gene are only detected in Ullrich/Bethlem patients on extremely rare occasions.
Case presentation
Herein we report two Brazilian brothers with a classic Ullrich phenotype and compound heterozygous for two truncating mutations in COL6A1 gene, expected to result in the loss of the α1(VI) chain C2 subdomain. Despite the reduction in COL6A1 RNA level due to nonsense RNA decay, three truncated alpha1 (VI) chains were produced as protein variants encoded by different out-of-frame transcripts. Collagen VI matrix was severely decreased and intracellular protein retention evident.
The altered deposition of the fibronectin network highlighted abnormal interactions of the mutated collagen VI, lacking the α1(VI) C2 domain, within the extracellular matrix, focusing further studies on the possible role played by collagen VI in fibronectin deposition and organization.
PMCID: PMC3681647  PMID: 23738969
Ullrich congenital dystrophy; Collagen VI; C-terminal truncating mutations
8.  Persistent Dystrophin Protein Restoration 90 Days after a Course of Intraperitoneally Administered Naked 2′OMePS AON and ZM2 NP-AON Complexes in mdx Mice 
In Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the exon-skipping approach has obtained proof of concept in animal models, myogenic cell cultures, and following local and systemic administration in Duchenne patients. Indeed, we have previously demonstrated that low doses (7.5 mg/Kg/week) of 2′-O-methyl-phosphorothioate antisense oligoribonucleotides (AONs) adsorbed onto ZM2 nanoparticles provoke widespread dystrophin restoration 7 days after intraperitoneal treatment in mdx mice. In this study, we went on to test whether this dystrophin restoration was still measurable 90 days from the end of the same treatment. Interestingly, we found that both western blot and immunohistochemical analysis (up to 7% positive fibres) were still able to detect dystrophin protein in the skeletal muscles of ZM2-AON-treated mice at this time, and the level of exon-23 skipping could still be assessed by RT real-time PCR (up to 10% of skipping percentage). In contrast, the protein was undetectable by western blot analysis in the skeletal muscles of mdx mice treated with an identical dose of naked AON, and the percentage of dystrophin-positive fibres and exon-23 skipping were reminiscent of those of untreated mdx mice. Our data therefore demonstrate the long-term residual efficacy of this systemic low-dose treatment and confirm the protective effect nanoparticles exert on AON molecules.
PMCID: PMC3471065  PMID: 23091362
9.  Genetic characterization in symptomatic female DMD carriers: lack of relationship between X-inactivation, transcriptional DMD allele balancing and phenotype 
BMC Medical Genetics  2012;13:73.
Although Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophies, X-linked recessive myopathies, predominantly affect males, a clinically significant proportion of females manifesting symptoms have also been reported. They represent an heterogeneous group characterized by variable degrees of muscle weakness and/or cardiac involvement. Though preferential inactivation of the normal X chromosome has long been considered the principal mechanism behind disease manifestation in these females, supporting evidence is controversial.
Eighteen females showing a mosaic pattern of dystrophin expression on muscle biopsy were recruited and classified as symptomatic (7) or asymptomatic (11), based on the presence or absence of muscle weakness. The causative DMD gene mutations were identified in all cases, and the X-inactivation pattern was assessed in muscle DNA. Transcriptional analysis in muscles was performed in all females, and relative quantification of wild-type and mutated transcripts was also performed in 9 carriers. Dystrophin protein was quantified by immunoblotting in 2 females.
The study highlighted a lack of relationship between dystrophic phenotype and X-inactivation pattern in females; skewed X-inactivation was found in 2 out of 6 symptomatic carriers and in 5 out of 11 asymptomatic carriers. All females were characterized by biallelic transcription, but no association was found between X-inactivation pattern and allele transcriptional balancing. Either a prevalence of wild-type transcript or equal proportions of wild-type and mutated RNAs was observed in both symptomatic and asymptomatic females. Moreover, very similar levels of total and wild-type transcripts were identified in the two groups of carriers.
This is the first study deeply exploring the DMD transcriptional behaviour in a cohort of female carriers. Notably, no relationship between X-inactivation pattern and transcriptional behaviour of DMD gene was observed, suggesting that the two mechanisms are regulated independently. Moreover, neither the total DMD transcript level, nor the relative proportion of the wild-type transcript do correlate with the symptomatic phenotype.
PMCID: PMC3459813  PMID: 22894145
Dystrophinopathy; Female carriers; X-inactivation; Transcriptional balancing
10.  Expression of collagen VI α5 and α6 chains in human muscle and in Duchenne muscular dystrophy-related muscle fibrosis 
Matrix Biology  2012;31(3):187-196.
Collagen VI is a major extracellular matrix (ECM) protein with a critical role in maintaining skeletal muscle functional integrity. Mutations in COL6A1, COL6A2 and COL6A3 genes cause Ullrich Congenital Muscular Dystrophy (UCMD), Bethlem Myopathy, and Myosclerosis. Moreover, Col6a1−/− mice and collagen VI deficient zebrafish display a myopathic phenotype. Recently, two additional collagen VI chains were identified in humans, the α5 and α6 chains, however their distribution patterns and functions in human skeletal muscle have not been thoroughly investigated yet. By means of immunofluorescence analysis, the α6 chain was detected in the endomysium and perimysium, while the α5 chain labeling was restricted to the myotendinous junctions. In normal muscle cultures, the α6 chain was present in traces in the ECM, while the α5 chain was not detected. In the absence of ascorbic acid, the α6 chain was mainly accumulated into the cytoplasm of a sub-set of desmin negative cells, likely of interstitial origin, which can be considered myofibroblasts as they expressed α-smooth muscle actin. TGF-β1 treatment, a pro-fibrotic factor which induces trans-differentiation of fibroblasts into myofibroblasts, increased the α6 chain deposition in the extracellular matrix after addition of ascorbic acid. In order to define the involvement of the α6 chain in muscle fibrosis we studied biopsies of patients affected by Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). We found that the α6 chain was dramatically up-regulated in fibrotic areas where, in contrast, the α5 chain was undetectable. Our results show a restricted and differential distribution of the novel α6 and α5 chains in skeletal muscle when compared to the widely distributed, homologous α3 chain, suggesting that these new chains may play specific roles in specialized ECM structures. While the α5 chain may have a specialized function in tissue areas subjected to tensile stress, the α6 chain appears implicated in ECM remodeling during muscle fibrosis.
► We study collagen VI alpha 5 and alpha 6 chains expression in human skeletal muscle. ► ► We show that alpha 5 chain is exclusively present at the myotendinous junctions. ► We show that alpha 6 chain is present in the ECM but not at the basement membranes. ► We show that alpha 6 chain increases in Duchenne muscular dystrophy muscle fibrosis. ► We hypothesize the possible formation of alpha1-2-6 or alpha1-2-5 chains trimers.
PMCID: PMC3315014  PMID: 22226732
Collagen VI; Skeletal muscle; Myotendinous junctions; Fibrosis; Duchenne muscular dystrophy
11.  Cyclosporine A in Ullrich Congenital Muscular Dystrophy: Long-Term Results 
Six individuals with Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy (UCMD) and mutations in the genes-encoding collagen VI, aging 5–9, received 3–5 mg/kg of cyclosporine A (CsA) daily for 1 to 3.2 years. The primary outcome measure was the muscle strength evaluated with a myometer and expressed as megalimbs. The megalimbs score showed significant improvement (P = 0.01) in 5 of the 6 patients. Motor function did not change. Respiratory function deteriorated in all. CsA treatment corrected mitochondrial dysfunction, increased muscle regeneration, and decreased the number of apoptotic nuclei. Results from this study demonstrate that long-term treatment with CsA ameliorates performance in the limbs, but not in the respiratory muscles of UCMD patients, and that it is well tolerated. These results suggest considering a trial of CsA or nonimmunosuppressive cyclosporins, that retains the PTP-desensitizing properties of CsA, as early as possible in UCMD patients when diaphragm is less compromised.
PMCID: PMC3199070  PMID: 22028947
12.  Preclinical PK and PD Studies on 2′-O-Methyl-phosphorothioate RNA Antisense Oligonucleotides in the mdx Mouse Model 
Molecular Therapy  2010;18(6):1210-1217.
Antisense oligonucleotides (AONs) are being developed as RNA therapeutic molecules for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. For oligonucleotides with the 2′-O-methyl-phosphorothioate (2OMePS) RNA chemistry, proof of concept has been obtained in patient-specific muscle cell cultures, the mouse and dog disease models, and recently by local administration in Duchenne patients. To further explore the pharmacokinetic (PK)/pharmacodynamic (PD) properties of this chemical class of oligonucleotides, we performed a series of preclinical studies in mice. The results demonstrate that the levels of oligonucleotides in dystrophin-deficient muscle fibers are much higher than in healthy fibers, leading to higher exon-skipping levels. Oligonucleotide levels and half-life differed for specific muscle groups, with heart muscle showing the lowest levels but longest half-life (~46 days). Intravenous (i.v.), subcutaneous (s.c.), and intraperitoneal (i.p.) delivery methods were directly compared. For each method, exon-skipping and novel dystrophin expression were observed in all muscles, including arrector pili smooth muscle in skin biopsies. After i.v. administration, the oligonucleotide peak levels in plasma, liver, and kidney were higher than after s.c. or i.p. injections. However, as the bioavailability was similar, and the levels of oligonucleotide, exon-skipping, and dystrophin steadily accumulated overtime after s.c. administration, we selected this patient-convenient delivery method for future clinical study protocols.
PMCID: PMC2889733  PMID: 20407428
13.  Identification of a deep intronic mutation in the COL6A2 gene by a novel custom oligonucleotide CGH array designed to explore allelic and genetic heterogeneity in collagen VI-related myopathies 
BMC Medical Genetics  2010;11:44.
Molecular characterization of collagen-VI related myopathies currently relies on standard sequencing, which yields a detection rate approximating 75-79% in Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy (UCMD) and 60-65% in Bethlem myopathy (BM) patients as PCR-based techniques tend to miss gross genomic rearrangements as well as copy number variations (CNVs) in both the coding sequence and intronic regions.
We have designed a custom oligonucleotide CGH array in order to investigate the presence of CNVs in the coding and non-coding regions of COL6A1, A2, A3, A5 and A6 genes and a group of genes functionally related to collagen VI. A cohort of 12 patients with UCMD/BM negative at sequencing analysis and 2 subjects carrying a single COL6 mutation whose clinical phenotype was not explicable by inheritance were selected and the occurrence of allelic and genetic heterogeneity explored.
A deletion within intron 1A of the COL6A2 gene, occurring in compound heterozygosity with a small deletion in exon 28, previously detected by routine sequencing, was identified in a BM patient. RNA studies showed monoallelic transcription of the COL6A2 gene, thus elucidating the functional effect of the intronic deletion. No pathogenic mutations were identified in the remaining analyzed patients, either within COL6A genes, or in genes functionally related to collagen VI.
Our custom CGH array may represent a useful complementary diagnostic tool, especially in recessive forms of the disease, when only one mutant allele is detected by standard sequencing. The intronic deletion we identified represents the first example of a pure intronic mutation in COL6A genes.
PMCID: PMC2850895  PMID: 20302629
14.  Emilin1 Deficiency Causes Structural and Functional Defects of Lymphatic Vasculature ▿  
Molecular and Cellular Biology  2008;28(12):4026-4039.
Lymphatic-vasculature function critically depends on extracellular matrix (ECM) and on its connections with lymphatic endothelial cells (LECs). However, the composition and the architecture of ECM have not been fully taken into consideration in studying the biology and the pathology of the lymphatic system. EMILIN1, an elastic microfibril-associated protein, is highly expressed by LECs in vitro and colocalizes with lymphatic vessels in several mouse tissues. A comparative study between WT and Emilin1−/− mice highlighted the fact that Emilin1 deficiency in both CD1 and C57BL/6 backgrounds results in hyperplasia, enlargement, and frequently an irregular pattern of superficial and visceral lymphatic vessels and in a significant reduction of anchoring filaments. Emilin1-deficient mice also develop larger lymphangiomas than WT mice. Lymphatic vascular morphological alterations are accompanied by functional defects, such as mild lymphedema, a highly significant drop in lymph drainage, and enhanced lymph leakage. Our findings demonstrate that EMILIN1 is involved in the regulation of the growth and in the maintenance of the integrity of lymphatic vessels, a fundamental requirement for efficient function. The phenotype displayed by Emilin1−/− mice is the first abnormal lymphatic phenotype associated with the deficiency of an ECM protein and identifies EMILIN1 as a novel local regulator of lymphangiogenesis.
PMCID: PMC2423131  PMID: 18411305
15.  EMILIN-1 Deficiency Induces Elastogenesis and Vascular Cell Defects 
Molecular and Cellular Biology  2004;24(2):638-650.
EMILINs constitute a family of genes of the extracellular matrix with high structural similarity. Four genes have been identified so far in human and mouse. To gain insight into the function of this gene family, EMILIN-1 has been inactivated in the mouse by gene targeting. The homozygous animals were fertile and did not show obvious abnormalities. However, histological and ultrastructural examination revealed alterations of elastic fibers in aorta and skin. Formation of elastic fibers by mutant embryonic fibroblasts in culture was also abnormal. Additional alterations were observed in cell morphology and anchorage of endothelial and smooth muscle cells to elastic lamellae. Considering that EMILIN-1 is adhesive for cells and that the protein binds to elastin and fibulin-5, EMILIN-1 may regulate elastogenesis and vascular cell maintenance by stabilizing molecular interactions between elastic fiber components and by endowing elastic fibers with specific cell adhesion properties.
PMCID: PMC343785  PMID: 14701737
16.  Melanocytes—A Novel Tool to Study Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy 
Journal of Cellular Physiology  2012;228(6):1323-1331.
Dystrophin is a subsarcolemmal protein that, by linking the actin cytoskeleton to the extracellular matrix via dystroglycans, is critical for the integrity of muscle fibers. Here, we report that epidermal melanocytes, obtained from conventional skin biopsy, express dystrophin with a restricted localization to the plasma membrane facing the dermal–epidermal junction. In addition the full-length muscle isoform mDp427 was clearly detectable in melanocyte cultures as assessed by immunohistochemistry, RNA, and Western blot analysis. Melanocytes of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) patients did not express dystrophin, and the ultrastructural analysis revealed typical mitochondrial alterations similar to those occurring in myoblasts from the same patients. Mitochondria of melanocytes from DMD patients readily accumulated tetramethylrhodamine methyl ester, indicating that they are energized irrespective of the presence of dystrophin but, at variance from mitochondria of control donors, depolarized upon the addition of oligomycin, suggesting that they are affected by a latent dysfunction unmasked by inhibition of the ATP synthase. Pure melanocyte cultures can be readily obtained by conventional skin biopsies and may be a feasible and reliable tool alternative to muscle biopsy for functional studies in dystrophinopathies. The mitochondrial dysfunction occurring in DMD melanocytes could represent a promising cellular biomarker for monitoring dystrophinopathies also in response to pharmacological treatments. J. Cell. Physiol. 228: 1323–1331, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
PMCID: PMC3601437  PMID: 23169061

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