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Switching Genes to Overdrive Improves Muscular Dystrophy Symptoms in Mice

BOSTON -- Scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have shown in a laboratory study that revving up a crucial set of muscle genes counteracts// the damage caused by a form of muscular dystrophy.

Reporting in the April 1 issue of Genes and Development, the researchers demonstrated that manipulating a genetic molecular switch increased the genes’ activity in the muscles of mice with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, slowing the disease-associated muscle wasting. The authors caution that they have not yet found a way to tweak the switch, known as PGC-1alpha, in humans.

“I think that if we could elevate the levels of PGC-1alpha in the muscles of patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, it is likely that we could slow or reduce the course of the disease,” said Bruce Spiegelman, PhD, the Dana-Farber researcher who led the team along with Christoph Handschin, PhD, formerly of Dana-Farber and now at the University of Zurich. Other authors are from the University of Iowa College of Medicine.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is the most common type of muscular dystrophy in children, occurring once in about every 5,000 live births of boys, and is ultimately fatal. The average age of death is the mid-teens, and most patients die by their 30s. In the United States, about 400 to 600 boys are born each year with DMD or Becker Muscular Dystrophy, a milder form of the disease. The cause is a mutation, either inherited or occurring spontaneously, that affects a muscle protein called dystrophin.

Spiegelman, whose laboratory discovered PGC-1alpha in 1998, led the new study which was aimed at determining whether increasing levels of PGC-1alpha in the muscles of mice could increase the activity of genes that are known to behave abnormally in muscular dystrophy.

PGC-1alpha is known as a “transcriptional coactivator” that functions as a switch, or perhaps more accurately, like a light dimmer that increases or decreases the activit
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