MND Association-funded researchers from the University of Liverpool have published results in the prestigious open access journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Under the leadership of Prof Samar Hasnain, the researchers identified that some TDP-43 mutant proteins hang around in the cell longer and become more stable, possibly leading to neurodegeneration in MND.
Although TDP-43 genetic mistakes are a rare cause of inherited MND (5-10% of total MND cases), scientists are especially interested in the TDP-43 protein because in the vast majority of cases of MND (irrespective of whether it was caused by an inherited genetic mistake), the TDP-43 protein forms pathological clumps inside motor neurons. Read More »
In 2011 an international team of scientists, including three MND Association-funded researchers, identified the elusive C9orf72 gene located on Chromosome 9. Since this ground-breaking discovery, researchers from around the world have been trying to find a way to open-up and reveal more about this MND-causing gene.
Determined to get inside and unravel the secrets behind C9orf72, the Association is funding a number of new and exciting research projects to help solve the mystery. These projects look at, not one, but a number of different aspects to try and understand more about C9orf72.
In order to solve this mystery our C9orf72 researchers are following the clues using zebrafish, mice, flies and DNA samples.
How the C9orf72 MND mystery began
We each contain copies of 23 pairs of chromosomes, including the X and Y sex chromosomes. These chromosomes contain thousands of genes that portray our characteristics such as hair and eye colour. These genes are made up of DNA which can either be ‘coding’ to make a protein, or ‘non-coding’. For details of how genes make a protein see our earlier blog post.
Before C9orf72 was identified researchers had focused on an area on Chromosome 9 that appeared to be connected with both the rare inherited form of MND and the related neurodegenerative disease frontotemporal dementia (FTD).
Using a number of cutting-edge techniques the international team isolated the C9orf72 gene expanded GGGGCC hexanucleotide repeat as being a crucial player in both inherited MND and FTD. Not only did the researchers find a link between MND and FTD, they also found that C9orf72 was found in approximately 40% of cases of inherited MND (where there is a strong family history). This means that we now know 70% of the genes that cause the rare inherited form of MND. For more details on C9orf72 see our earlier blog post.
So, researchers found C9orf72. The next question was ‘What does it do? Is the gene defect repeat itself, or the protein it makes responsible for causing MND? And what goes wrong in MND?’
Two recent research clues
Since 2011 researchers have been trying to answer these questions and find out more about C9orf72. This has led to a dramatic increase in research, including two papers published in February and March this year!
Prof Christian Haass (Munich Centre for Neurosciences, Germany), who recently presented at our 23rd International Symposium on ALS/MND in December 2012, published a paper on the 7 February in the journal Science. The second paper lead by Prof Leonard Petrucelli (Mayo Clinic, USA) was published open access in the journal Neuron on the 20 February.
In a big surprise, both researchers found that the presumed ‘non-coding’ C9orf72 GGGGCC repeat expansion actually made a protein. Normally these ‘non-coding’ regions do not make proteins so this was a very big surprise indeed!
The researchers found that these proteins formed large clumps in the brains, and throughout the central nervous system (CNS), of people with C9orf72 MND and/or FTD. Importantly, they did not find these clumps in healthy individuals or those with other neurological disorders.
It is currently unknown as to whether these protein clumps are involved in MND and/or FTD, but they may be a potential biomarker or a therapeutic target in this most common type of MND. The next step is for the researchers to find out whether these proteins actually cause MND and/or FTD.
Finding more evidence to piece together the clues
In addition to these two papers looking into the mystery behind C9orf72, the Association is funding some exciting new research projects, each looking at different things, to further understand more about this gene.
Dr Johnathan Cooper-Knock (Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience, UK) is already trying to identify how C9orf72 causes MND by utilising a genetic technique known as gene expression profiling. He is using samples from the Association’s DNA bank which are positive for the C9orf72 genetic mistake. Gene expression profiling is a technique which allows researchers to understand how the activity of genes contributes towards causing MND. (Traditional genetic studies are designed to look at which genes are affected, rather than their activity – ie when and how). Read more about Johnathan’s project here.
Developing new disease models enables us to understand the causes of MND and to test new therapies. One way to understand the function of C9orf72 and how this goes wrong in MND is to create a model. Our current research projects are developing new C9orf72 models in flies, mice and zebrafish.
Dr Frank Hirth (Kings College London, UK) will be producing a fly model, Dr Javier Alegre Abarrategui (University of Oxford) will be making a mouse model and Dr Andrew Grierson (University of Sheffield, UK) will be creating a zebrafish model.
All of our C9orf72 Association-funded research projects are using different approaches to look at C9orf72 in different ways as we are still unsure whether the protein or the repeat is the problem. From mice to flies all of these research projects together are helping to solve the mystery of C9orf72 and MND.
With the proteins formed by C9orf72 likely to be a potential biomarker or therapeutic target the two recent papers are adding to the growing number of clues, pointing researchers in the right direction to unravelling and solving the secrets of C9orf72.
Mori, K. et al. The C9orf72 GGGGCC Repeat Is Translated into Aggregating Dipeptide-Repeat Proteins in FTLD/ALS. Science. 339(6125): 1335-1338.2013 DOI: 10.1126/science.1232927
Ash, P. E. A. et al. Unconventional Translation of C9ORF72 GGGGCC Expansion Generates Insoluble Polypeptides Specific to c9FTD/ALS. Neuron. 77(4): 639-646. 2013 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2013.02.004
Proteins are the building blocks of our cells and have a variety of important roles within our bodies. The instructions for how to build our proteins sit within our DNA, our genetic code in the control centre of our cells (the nucleus). There are many steps to go through from reading that ‘raw’ instruction to ending up with a fully functioning protein.
However, the amount of information held within our genetic code is so huge that only small segments of it are read and transferred to the factory floor, as and when they are needed. These copies, known as messenger RNA, are small enough to be transported to the ‘factory floor’ of the cell to large machine-like entities called ribosomes where the copy is read, and used to create the resulting protein.
When I was doing my A levels and later at University (yes, that long ago!), we were taught that only 1% of the genetic code ever made it to the factory floor. This held true until a couple of years ago. However, as explained by Professor Bob Brown in his presentation at the ‘RNA and protein processing’ session this afternoon, such is the change in our knowledge in that area, we now know that 95% of our genetic code makes it through to the first step of making proteins.
This was a key piece of context in trying to understand the role that TDP43 plays in functioning cells – never mind specifically in motor neurones or in cases of the presence of damaged TDP43 in MND!
Professor Brown, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Boston, USA went on to give an enlightening review of what has been uncovered about this fascinating protein (TDP43) so far. Once the protein of TDP43 has been correctly made, its function is to go back and ensure that other proteins are correctly made too – the so called ‘reading helpers’ of the cells, or ‘editors of instructions’. Another new fact to me from this talk was that TDP43 is involved in editing or reading up to ONE THIRD of all proteins within the cell. That’s a city fat cat type of job! So how is it all related to it’s function in MND?
Some elegant experiments have shown that TDP43 regulates how many copies of it’s own protein are made. However, the regulation takes place in the control centre of the cell (see the top of this blog). If TDP43 gets stuck or waylaid on the factory floor, it can’t get back to press the stop button in time. So it’s thought that more and more protein is made, accumulating on the factory floor until that accumulation can be seen as the protein deposits so characteristic of what you see of motor neurones affected by MND down the microscope.
Part of the editing work that TDP43 does so well is known as ‘splicing’. In true ‘Blue Peter’ style, here is a description of that process that Kelly prepared before I flew out to Sydney:
One gene can hold the instructions for a number of different versions or variants of a protein. These variants are created when different parts of the gene are used in alternative combinations. This is a normal process and it’s called ‘alternative splicing’. This complicates matters in terms of genetic research, as even though we have approximately 20,000 genes, we could potentially have a much higher number of functional proteins because of alternative spliced variants.
How does alternative splicing work?
The picture (below) depicts a simple version of how a gene can be alternatively spliced, given three ‘parts’. The example demonstrates that the first version of the protein is made up of parts 1, 2 and 3, whereas version two is made up of only parts 1 and 3. These resulting proteins would go on to function in our bodies in potentially different ways. It is therefore possible for a number of different proteins to be created given one set of original instructions in the genetic code.