Cold Spring Harbor, NY In the neuromuscular disease called spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA, a protein deficiency caused by a single gene mutation leads to serious damage in growing nerve cells and the muscles they control.
Now, in laboratory experiments, researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) and Isis Pharmaceuticals have induced cells to replenish the protein by activating an existing, slightly modified copy of the mutant gene. These early results hold out hope for one day successfully treating this often-fatal disease.
SMA, which affects about one out of every 6,000 newborns, occurs when the baby inherits a defective version of a gene called SMN1 from both its mother and father. The protein that this gene produces performs cellular "housekeeping" activities, says CSHL professor Adrian Krainer, Ph.D., who led the research team, so "it's hard to explain why it matters more in motor neurons" that are afflicted by SMA than in other cells.
A Backup Copy
Some SMA patients are affected more profoundly than others, in part because a second version of the gene, SMN2, also produces the protein, and makes up for some of the deficit. "All these patients, although they're missing a critical gene, have this second gene that in healthy people is not necessary," says Dr. Krainer.
Over time, subtle mutations have arisen that make the second gene produce much less of the critical protein, even though it still has all of the pieces needed to make the final protein. Instead, the mutations trigger the cellular machinery to omit one major piece of the protein, without which it rapidly degrades.
Researchers have known for years that some sections of the genetic information are left out during the intricate process that ends in the production of protein. The first step of this process, which is called transcription, involves copying DNA into a strand of RNA. This RNA is then edited by special enzymes that
|Contact: Jim Bono|
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory