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1.  Cost effective assay choice for rare disease study designs 
High throughput assays tend to be expensive per subject. Often studies are limited not so much by the number of subjects available as by assay costs, making assay choice a critical issue. We have developed a framework for assay choice that maximises the number of true disease causing mechanisms ‘seen’, given limited resources. Although straightforward, some of the ramifications of our methodology run counter to received wisdom on study design. We illustrate our methodology with examples, and have built a website allowing calculation of quantities of interest to those designing rare disease studies.
PMCID: PMC4334400  PMID: 25648394
WES; WGS; High-throughput assay; Rare disease; Study design
2.  PDCD10 Gene Mutations in Multiple Cerebral Cavernous Malformations 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(10):e110438.
Cerebral cavernous malformations (CCMs) are vascular abnormalities that may cause seizures, intracerebral haemorrhages, and focal neurological deficits. Familial form shows an autosomal dominant pattern of inheritance with incomplete penetrance and variable clinical expression. Three genes have been identified causing familial CCM: KRIT1/CCM1, MGC4607/CCM2, and PDCD10/CCM3. Aim of this study is to report additional PDCD10/CCM3 families poorly described so far which account for 10-15% of hereditary cerebral cavernous malformations. Our group investigated 87 consecutive Italian affected individuals (i.e. positive Magnetic Resonance Imaging) with multiple/familial CCM through direct sequencing and Multiplex Ligation-Dependent Probe Amplification (MLPA) analysis. We identified mutations in over 97.7% of cases, and PDCD10/CCM3 accounts for 13.1%. PDCD10/CCM3 molecular screening revealed four already known mutations and four novel ones. The mutated patients show an earlier onset of clinical manifestations as compared to CCM1/CCM2 mutated patients. The study of further families carrying mutations in PDCD10/CCM3 may help define a possible correlation between genotype and phenotype; an accurate clinical follow up of the subjects would help define more precisely whether mutations in PDCD10/CCM3 lead to a characteristic phenotype.
PMCID: PMC4212902  PMID: 25354366
3.  Interstitial 7q31.1 copy number variations disrupting IMMP2L gene are associated with a wide spectrum of neurodevelopmental disorders 
Since the introduction of the array-CGH technique in the diagnostic workup of mental retardation, new recurrent copy number variations and novel microdeletion/microduplication syndromes were identified. These findings suggest that some genomic disorders have high penetrance but a wide range of phenotypic severity.
We present the clinical and molecular description of four unrelated patients affected by neurodevelopmental disorders and overlapping 7q31.1 microdeletion/microduplication, identified by array-CGH and involving only part of the IMMP2L gene.
IMMP2L encodes an inner mitochondrial membrane protease-like protein, which is required for processing of cytochromes inside mitochondria. Numerous studies reported that this gene is implicated in behavioural disorders such as autistic spectrum disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders, and Gilles de la Tourette syndrome. We discuss the functions of the gene suggesting that IMMP2L may act as risk factor for neurological disease.
PMCID: PMC4255718  PMID: 25478008
IMMP2L; Neurodevelopmental disorders; Copy number variation; Array-CGH
4.  Constitutional chromosomal events at 22q11 and 15q26 in a child with a pilocytic astrocytoma of the spinal cord 
We report on a 9-years-old patient with mild intellectual disability, facial dimorphisms, bilateral semicircular canal dysplasia, periventricular nodular heterotopias, bilateral hippocampal malrotation and abnormal cerebellar foliation, who developed mild motor impairment and gait disorder due to a pilocytic astrocytoma of the spinal cord. Array-CGH analysis revealed two paternal inherited chromosomal events: a 484.3 Kb duplication on chromosome 15q26.3 and a 247 Kb deletion on 22q11.23. Further, a second de novo 1.5 Mb deletion on 22q11.21 occurred. Chromosome 22 at q11.2 and chromosome 15 at q24q26 are considered unstable regions subjected to copy number variations, i.e. structural alterations of genome, mediated by low copy repeat sequences or segmental duplications. The link between some structural CNVs, which compromise fundamental processes controlling DNA stability, and genomic disorders suggest a plausible scenario for cancer predisposition.
Evaluation of the genes at the breakpoints cannot account simultaneously for the phenotype and tumour development in this patient. The two paternal inherited CNVs arguably are not pathogenic and do not contribute to the clinical manifestations. Similarly, although the de novo large deletion at 22q11.21 overlaps with the Di George (DGS) critical region and results in haploinsufficiency of genes compromising critical processes for DNA stability, this case lacks several hallmarks of DGS.
PMCID: PMC4032172  PMID: 24860619
Pilocytic astrocytoma; Spinal cord; Semicircular canal dysplasia; 15q duplication; 22q11.2 deletion
5.  Molecular fingerprinting reflects different histotypes and brain region in low grade gliomas 
BMC Cancer  2013;13:387.
Paediatric low-grade gliomas (LGGs) encompass a heterogeneous set of tumours of different histologies, site of lesion, age and gender distribution, growth potential, morphological features, tendency to progression and clinical course. Among LGGs, Pilocytic astrocytomas (PAs) are the most common central nervous system (CNS) tumours in children. They are typically well-circumscribed, classified as grade I by the World Health Organization (WHO), but recurrence or progressive disease occurs in about 10-20% of cases. Despite radiological and neuropathological features deemed as classic are acknowledged, PA may present a bewildering variety of microscopic features. Indeed, tumours containing both neoplastic ganglion and astrocytic cells occur at a lower frequency.
Gene expression profiling on 40 primary LGGs including PAs and mixed glial-neuronal tumours comprising gangliogliomas (GG) and desmoplastic infantile gangliogliomas (DIG) using Affymetrix array platform was performed. A biologically validated machine learning workflow for the identification of microarray-based gene signatures was devised. The method is based on a sparsity inducing regularization algorithm l1l2 that selects relevant variables and takes into account their correlation. The most significant genetic signatures emerging from gene-chip analysis were confirmed and validated by qPCR.
We identified an expression signature composed by a biologically validated list of 15 genes, able to distinguish infratentorial from supratentorial LGGs. In addition, a specific molecular fingerprinting distinguishes the supratentorial PAs from those originating in the posterior fossa. Lastly, within supratentorial tumours, we also identified a gene expression pattern composed by neurogenesis, cell motility and cell growth genes which dichotomize mixed glial-neuronal tumours versus PAs. Our results reinforce previous observations about aberrant activation of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway in LGGs, but still point to an active involvement of TGF-beta signaling pathway in the PA development and pick out some hitherto unreported genes worthy of further investigation for the mixed glial-neuronal tumours.
The identification of a brain region-specific gene signature suggests that LGGs, with similar pathological features but located at different sites, may be distinguishable on the basis of cancer genetics. Molecular fingerprinting seems to be able to better sub-classify such morphologically heterogeneous tumours and it is remarkable that mixed glial-neuronal tumours are strikingly separated from PAs.
PMCID: PMC3765921  PMID: 23947815
Gene expression profile; Machine learning; Low-grade glioma; PA; Mixed glial-neuronal tumours
6.  Variation in Novel Exons (RACEfrags) of the MECP2 Gene in Rett Syndrome Patients and Controls 
Human mutation  2009;30(9):E866-E879.
The study of transcription using genomic tiling arrays has lead to the identification of numerous additional exons. One example is the MECP2 gene on the X chromosome; using 5’RACE and RT-PCR in human tissues and cell lines, we have found more than 70 novel exons (RACEfrags) connecting to at least one annotated exon.. We sequenced all MECP2-connected exons and flanking sequences in 3 groups: 46 patients with the Rett syndrome and without mutations in the currently annotated exons of the MECP2 and CDKL5 genes; 32 patients with the Rett syndrome and identified mutations in the MECP2 gene; 100 control individuals from the same geoethnic group. Approximately 13kb were sequenced per sample, (2.4Mb of DNA resequencing). A total of 75 individuals had novel rare variants (mostly private variants) but no statistically significant difference was found among the 3 groups. These results suggest that variants in the newly discovered exons may not contribute to Rett syndrome. Interestingly however, there are about twice more variants in the novel exons than in the flanking sequences (44 vs. 21 for approximately 1.3 Mb sequenced for each class of sequences, p = 0.0025). Thus the evolutionary forces that shape these novel exons may be different than those of neighboring sequences.
PMCID: PMC3708316  PMID: 19562714
MECP2; Rett syndrome; RACEfrags; SNP; rare variants; positive selection
7.  Parental Imbalances Involving Chromosomes 15q and 22q May Predispose to the Formation of De Novo Pathogenic Microdeletions and Microduplications in the Offspring 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(3):e57910.
Microarray-based comparative genomic hybridization (array-CGH) led to the discovery of genetic abnormalities among patients with complex phenotype and normal karyotype. Also several apparently normal individuals have been found to be carriers of cryptic imbalances, hence the importance to perform parental investigations after the identification of a deletion/duplication in a proband. Here, we report the molecular cytogenetic characterization of two individuals in which the microdeletions/duplications present in their parents could have predisposed and facilitated the formation of de novo pathogenic different copy number variations (CNVs). In family 1, a 4-year-old girl had a de novo pathogenic 10.5 Mb duplication at 15q21.2q22.2, while her mother showed a 2.262 Mb deletion at 15q13.2q13.3; in family 2, a 9-year-old boy had a de novo 1.417 Mb deletion at 22q11.21 and a second paternal deletion of 247 Kb at 22q11.23 on the same chromosome 22. Chromosome 22 at band q11.2 and chromosome 15 at band q11q13 are considered unstable regions. We could hypothesize that 15q13.2q13.3 and 22q11.21 deletions in the two respective parents might have increased the risk of rearrangements in their children. This study highlights the difficulty to make genetic counseling and predict the phenotypic consequences in these situations.
PMCID: PMC3590287  PMID: 23483941
8.  Identification and characterization of novel rare mutations in the planar cell polarity gene PRICKLE1 in human neural tube defects 
Human mutation  2011;32(12):1371-1375.
The planar cell polarity (PCP) pathway controls the process of convergent extension (CE) during gastrulation and neural tube closure and has been implicated in the pathogenesis of neural tube defects (NTDs) in animal models and human cohorts. In this study, we analyzed the role of one core PCP gene PRICKLE1 in these malformations. We screened this gene in 810 unrelated NTD patients and identified 7 rare missense heterozygous mutations that were absent in all controls analyzed and predicted to be functionally deleterious using bioinformatics. Functional validation of 5 PRICKLE1 variants in a zebrafish model demonstrated that one variant, p.Arg682Cys, antagonized the CE phenotype induced by the wild-type zebrafish prickle1a in a dominant fashion. Our study demonstrates that PRICKLE1 could act as a predisposing factor to human NTDs and further expands our knowledge of the role of PCP genes in the pathogenesis of these malformations.
PMCID: PMC3217084  PMID: 21901791
PRICKLE1; Planar cell polarity; PCP; neural tube defects; NTD; rare mutations
9.  FZD6 is a novel gene for human neural tube defects 
Human Mutation  2011;33(2):384-390.
Neural tube defects (NTDs) are severe malformations of the central nervous system, affecting 1 of 1,000 live births. Mouse models were instrumental in defining the signaling pathways defective in NTDs, including the planar cell polarity (PCP), also called noncanonical Frizzled/Disheveled pathway. Based on the highly penetrant occurrence of NTDs in double Fzd3/Fzd6−/− mutant mice, we investigated the role of the human orthologues, FZD3 and FZD6, by resequencing a cohort of 473 NTDs patients and 639 ethnically matched controls. While we could not demonstrate a significant contribution of FZD3 gene, we identified five rare FZD6 variants that were absent in all controls and predicted to have a functional effect by computational analysis: one de novo frameshift mutation (c.1843_1844insA), three missense changes (p.Arg405Gln, p.Arg511Cys p.Arg511His), and one substitution (c.*20C>T) affecting the 3′-untranslated region (UTR) of the gene. The overall rate of predicted deleterious variants of FZD6 was 5.1-fold higher in cases compared to controls, resulting in a significantly increased NTDs mutation burden. This study demonstrates that rare nonsynonymous variants in FZD6 may contribute to NTDs in humans and enlarges the spectrum of mutations that link PCP pathway to NTDs. Hum Mutat 33:384–390, 2012. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
PMCID: PMC3482927  PMID: 22045688
neural tube defects (NTD); planar cell polarity pathway; FZD6
10.  Identification of a rare 17p13.3 duplication including the BHLHA9 and YWHAE genes in a family with developmental delay and behavioural problems 
BMC Medical Genetics  2012;13:93.
Deletions and duplications of the PAFAH1B1 and YWHAE genes in 17p13.3 are associated with different clinical phenotypes. In particular, deletion of PAFAH1B1 causes isolated lissencephaly while deletions involving both PAFAH1B1 and YWHAE cause Miller-Dieker syndrome. Isolated duplications of PAFAH1B1 have been associated with mild developmental delay and hypotonia, while isolated duplications of YWHAE have been associated with autism. In particular, different dysmorphic features associated with PAFAH1B1 or YWHAE duplication have suggested the need to classify the patient clinical features in two groups according to which gene is involved in the chromosomal duplication.
We analyze the proband and his family by classical cytogenetic and array-CGH analyses. The putative rearrangement was confirmed by fluorescence in situ hybridization.
We have identified a family segregating a 17p13.3 duplication extending 329.5 kilobases by FISH and array-CGH involving the YWHAE gene, but not PAFAH1B1, affected by a mild dysmorphic phenotype with associated autism and mental retardation. We propose that BHLHA9, YWHAE, and CRK genes contribute to the phenotype of our patient. The small chromosomal duplication was inherited from his mother who was affected by a bipolar and borderline disorder and was alcohol addicted.
We report an additional familial case of small 17p13.3 chromosomal duplication including only BHLHA9, YWHAE, and CRK genes. Our observation and further cases with similar microduplications are expected to be diagnosed, and will help better characterise the clinical spectrum of phenotypes associated with 17p13.3 microduplications.
PMCID: PMC3495055  PMID: 23035971
Familial 17p13.3 duplication syndrome; PAFAH1B1 and YWHAE genes; Array-CGH
11.  Genetic Analysis of Disheveled 2 and Disheveled 3 in Human Neural Tube Defects 
Journal of Molecular Neuroscience  2012;49(3):582-588.
Neural tube defects are severe malformations affecting 1/1,000 live births. The planar cell polarity pathway controls the neural tube closure and has been implicated in the pathogenesis of neural tube defects both in animal models and human cohorts. In mouse disruption of Dvl2 alone (Dvl2−/−) or Dvl2 and Dvl3 (Dvl2−/−; Dvl3+/−, Dvl2+/−; Dvl3−/−) results in incomplete neurulation, suggesting a role for Disheveled in neural tube closure. Disheveled is a multifunctional protein that is involved in both the canonical Wnt signaling and the noncanonical planar cell polarity pathway. In this study, we analyzed the role of the human orthologs DVL2 and DVL3 in a cohort of 473 patients with neural tube defects. Rare variants were genotyped in 639 ethnically matched controls. We identified seven rare missense mutations that were absent in all controls analyzed. Two of these mutations, p.Tyr667Cys and p.Ala53Val, identified in DVL2 were predicted to be detrimental in silico. Significantly, a 1-bp insertion (c.1801_1802insG) in exon 15 of DVL2 predicted to lead to the truncation of the protein was identified in a patient with a complex form of caudal agenesis. In summary, we demonstrate a possible role for rare variants in DVL2 gene as risk factors for neural tube defects.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s12031-012-9871-9) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC3566388  PMID: 22892949
Neural tube defects (NTDs); Planar cell polarity (PCP) pathway; Mouse models; Disheveled (Dvl)
12.  Contribution of VANGL2 mutations to isolated neural tube defects 
Clinical genetics  2010;80(1):76-82.
Vangl2 was identified as the gene defective in the Looptail mouse model for neural tube defects (NTDs). This gene forms part of the planar cell polarity pathway, also called the non-canonical Frizzled/Dishevelled pathway, which mediates the morphogenetic process of convergent extension essential for proper gastrulation and neural tube formation in vertebrates. Genetic defects in PCP signaling have strongly been associated with NTDs in mouse models. To assess the role of VANGL2 in the complex etiology of NTDs in humans, we resequenced this gene in a large multi-ethnic cohort of 673 familial and sporadic NTD patients, including 453 open spina bifida and 202 closed spinal NTD cases. Six novel rare missense mutations were identified in 7 patients, five of which were affected with closed spinal NTDs. This suggests that VANGL2 mutations may predispose to NTDs in approximately 2.5% of closed spinal NTDs (5 in 202), at a frequency that is significantly different from that of 0.4% (2 in 453) detected in open spina bifida patients (P=0.027). Our findings strongly implicate VANGL2 in the genetic causation of spinal NTDs in a subset of patients and provide additional evidence for a pathogenic role of PCP signaling in these malformations.
PMCID: PMC3000889  PMID: 20738329
VANGL2; neural tube defects; planar cell polarity
13.  High levels of PROM1 (CD133) transcript are a potential predictor of poor prognosis in medulloblastoma 
Neuro-Oncology  2011;13(5):500-508.
The surface marker PROM1 is considered one of the most important markers of tumor-initiating cells, and its expression is believed to be an adverse prognostic factor in gliomas and in other malignancies. To date, to our knowledge, no specific studies of its expression in medulloblastoma series have been performed. The aims of our study were to evaluate the expression profile of the PROM1 gene in medulloblastoma and to assess its possible role as a prognostic factor. The PROM1 gene expression was evaluated by quantitative– polymerase chain reaction on 45 medulloblastoma samples by using specific dye-labeled probe systems. A significantly higher expression of PROM1 was found both in patients with poorer prognosis (P= .007) and in those with metastasis (P= .03). Kaplan–Meier analysis showed that both overall survival (OS) and progression-free survival (PFS) were shorter in patients with higher PROM1 mRNA levels than in patients with lower expression, even when the desmoplastic cases were excluded (P= .0004 and P= .002, for OS and PFS for all cases, respectively; P= .002 and P= .008 for OS and PFS for nondesmoplastic cases, respectively). Cox regression model demonstrated that PROM1 expression is an independent prognostic factor (hazard ratio, 4.56; P= .008). The result was validated on an independent cohort of 42 cases by microarray-based analysis (P= .019). This work suggests that high mRNA levels of PROM1 are associated with poor outcome in pediatric medulloblastoma. Furthermore, high PROM1 expression levels seem to increase the likelihood of metastases. Such results need to be confirmed in larger prospective series to possibly incorporate PROM1 gene expression into risk classification systems to be used in the clinical setting.
PMCID: PMC3093338  PMID: 21486962
cancer stem cells; medulloblastoma; PROM1; q-PCR
14.  VANGL1 rare variants associated with neural tube defects affect convergent extension in zebrafish 
Mechanisms of development  2010;127(7-8):385-392.
In humans, rare non-synonymous variants in the planar cell polarity gene VANGL1 are associated with neural tube defects (NTDs). These variants were hypothesized to be pathogenic based mainly on genetic studies in a large cohort of NTD patients. In this study, we validate the potential pathogenic effect of these mutations in vivo by investigating their effect on convergent extension in zebrafish. Knocking down the expression of tri, the ortholog of Vangl2, using an antisense morpholino (MO), as shown previously, led to a defective convergent extension (CE) manifested by a shortened body axis and widened somites. Co-injection of the human VANGL1 with the tri-MO was able to partially rescue the tri-MO induced phenotype in zebrafish. In contrast, co-injection of two human VANGL1 variants, p.Val239Ile and p.Met328Thr, failed to rescue this phenotype. We next carried out overexpression studies where we measured the ability of the human VANGL1 alleles to induce a CE phenotype when injected at high doses in zebrafish embryos. While overexpressing the wild-type allele led to a severely defective CE, overexpression of either p.Val239Ile or p.Met328Thr variant failed to do so. Results from both tri-MO knockdown/rescue results and overexpression assays suggest that these two variants most likely represent “loss-of-function” alleles that affect protein function during embryonic development. Our study demonstrates a high degree of functional conservation of VANGL genes across evolution and provides a model system for studying potential variants identified in human NTDs.
PMCID: PMC2965831  PMID: 20043994
Neural tube defects; VANGL genes; Convergent extension; Planar cell polarity; Zebrafish model
15.  Novel Mutations in VANGL1 in Neural Tube Defects 
Human mutation  2009;30(7):E706-E715.
Neural tube defects (NTDs) are severe congenital malformations caused by failure of the neural tube to close during neurulation. Their etiology is complex involving both environmental and genetic factors. We have recently reported three mutations in the planar cell polarity gene VANGL1 associated with NTDs. The aim of the present study was to define the role of VANGL1 genetic variants in the development of NTDs in a large cohort of various ethnic origins. We identified five novel missense variants in VANGL1, p.Ser83Leu, p.Phe153Ser, p.Arg181Gln, p.Leu202Phe and p.Ala404Ser, occurring in sporadic and familial cases of spinal dysraphisms. All five variants affect evolutionary conserved residues and are absent from all controls analyzed. This study provides further evidence supporting the role of VANGL1 as a risk factor in the development of spinal NTDs.
PMCID: PMC2885434  PMID: 19319979
VANGL1; neural tube defects; planar cell polarity
16.  Leiomyomatosis peritonealis disseminata in association with Currarino syndrome? 
BMC Cancer  2006;6:127.
Leiomyomatosis peritonealis disseminata (LPD) is a rare disease in which multiple smooth muscle or smooth muscle-like nodules develop subperitoneally in any part of the abdominal cavity. No reports of multiple congenital malformations associated with LPD have been found in the English literature.
Case presentation
A 27 year-old patient referred to our gynaecology unit for pelvic pain, amenorrhoea, stress incontinence, chronic constipation and recurrent intestinal and urinary infections. Multiple congenital malformations had previously been diagnosed. Most of these had required surgical treatment in her early life: anorectal malformation with rectovestibular fistula, ectopic right ureteral orifice, megadolichoureter and hemisacrum.
An ultrasound scan and computed tomography performed in our department showed an irregular, polylobate, complex 20 cm mass originating from the right pelvis that reached the right hypochondrium and the epigastrium. The patient underwent laparotomy. The three largest abdominal-pelvic masses and multiple independent nodules within the peritoneum were progressively removed. The histological diagnosis was of LPD.
The case we report is distinctive in that a rare acquired disease, LPD, coexists with multiple congenital malformations recalling a particular subgroup of caudal regression syndrome: the Currarino syndrome.
PMCID: PMC1481579  PMID: 16686944

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