Suspecting another factor at play, Gomez and his team instead focused on α1ACT, a poorly understood, free-floating fragment of the CACNA1A calcium channel protein known to express extra copies of glutamine in SCA6 cells. The researchers first looked at its origin and found that, to their surprise, α1ACT was generated from the same mRNA sequence as the CACNA1A calcium channel.
For the first time, they had evidence of a human gene that coded one strand of mRNA that coded two separate, structurally distinct proteins. This occurred due to the presence of a special sequence in the mRNA known as an internal ribosomal entry site (IRES). Normally found at the beginning of an mRNA sequence, this IRES site sat in the middle, creating a second location for ribosomes, the cellular machines that read mRNA, to begin the process of protein production.
Looking at function, Gomez and his team found that normal α1ACT acted as a transcription factor and enhanced the growth of specific brain cells. Importantly, mutated α1ACT appeared to be toxic to nerve cells in a petri dish, and caused SCA6-like symptoms in an animal model.
The team hopes to discover other examples of human genes with similar IRES sites to better understand the implications of this new class of "bifunctional" genes on our basic biology. For now, they are focused on leveraging their findings toward helping SCA6 patients and already are working on ways to silence mutated α1ACT.
"We discovered this genetic phenomenon in the pursuit of a disease cause and, in finding it, immediately have a potential strategy for developing preclinical tools to treat that disease," Gomez said. "If we can target the IRES and inhibit production of this mutant form of α1ACT in SCA6, we may be able to stop the progression of the disease."
|Contact: Kevin Jiang|
University of Chicago Medical Center