Staying ahead of Huntington's disease

December 11, 2013 by Beth Miller
Staying ahead of Huntington's disease
In the figure above, the open circles are data for individual patients with Huntington's disease, and the solid circles are averages for a given CAG repeat length. Huntington's disease is caused by a defect in the huntingtin gene (Htt) that causes an abnormal expansion in the CAG codon or triplet that codes for the amino acid glutamine. This CAG triplet expansion in unrelated genes is the root of at least nine neurodegenerative disorders, including Huntington's disease. Credit: MacDonald et al., (2003) Neuromolecular Med. 4: 7-20

Huntington's disease is a devastating, incurable disorder that results from the death of certain neurons in the brain. Its symptoms show as progressive changes in behavior and movements.

The neurodegenerative disease is caused by a defect in the (Htt) that causes an abnormal expansion in a part of DNA, called a CAG codon or triplet that codes for the amino acid glutamine. A healthy version of the Htt gene has between 20 and 23 CAG triplets. The mutational expansion in Htt can lead to long repeats of the CAG triplet, resulting in the mutant protein having a long sequence of several glutamine residues called a polyglutamine tract. This CAG triplet expansion in unrelated genes is the root of at least nine neurodegenerative disorders, including Huntington's disease.

Rohit Pappu, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, and his colleagues in the School of Engineering & Applied Science and in the School of Medicine, are working to understand how expanded polyglutamine tracts form the types of supramolecular structures that are presumed to be toxic to neurons – a feature that polyglutamine expansions share with proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

In recent work, Pappu and his research team showed that the amino acid sequences on either side of the polyglutamine tract within Htt can act as natural gatekeepers because they control the fundamental ability of polyglutamine tracts to form structures that are implicated in cellular toxicity. The results were published in PNAS Early Edition Nov. 25.

"These are progressive onset disorders," Pappu says. "The longer the polyglutamine tract gets, the more severe the disease, and the symptoms worsen with age. Our results are exciting because it means that any success we have in mimicking the effects of naturally occurring gatekeepers would be a significant step forward. And mechanistic studies are important in this regard because they enable us to learn from nature's own strategies.

"Previous studies from other labs showed that the toxic effects of polyglutamine expansions are tempered by the sequence contexts of polyglutamine tracts in Htt, not just the lengths of the polyglutamine tracts", Pappu says.

He and his research team focused on understanding the effects of sequence stretches that lie on either side of the polyglutamine tract in Htt. The results show that the N-terminal stretch accelerates the formation of ordered structures that are presumed to be benign to cells, whereas the C-terminal stretch slows the overall transition into structures that are expected to create trouble for cells, suggesting that these naturally occurring sequences behave as gatekeepers.

"It appears that where polyglutamine stretches are of functional importance, nature has ensured that they are flanked by gatekeeping sequences," Pappu says.

Pappu and his team are now working to find way s to mimic the effects of the N- and C-terminal flanking sequences from Htt. His team is working closely with Marc Diamond, MD, the David Clayson Professor of Neurology at the School of Medicine, to understand how naturally occurring proteins interact with flanking sequences and see if they can coopt them to ameliorate the toxic functions in the polyglutamine expansions.

Explore further: Having Huntington's disease or other 'polyQ' diseases protects against cancer, suggesting common genetic mechanism

Related Stories

Having Huntington's disease or other 'polyQ' diseases protects against cancer, suggesting common genetic mechanism

April 11, 2012
Having Huntington's disease or other diseases known as polyglutamine (polyQ) diseases reduces a person's risk of getting cancer, suggesting a common genetic mechanism, concludes an Article published Online First by The Lancet ...

New insight into the cellular defects in Huntington's disease

October 10, 2011
Huntington disease is a devastating neurogenerative disorder that causes a progressive loss of functional capacity and reduced life span. It is an inherited condition caused by a mutant HTT gene. Although this has been known ...

Recommended for you

Researchers reveal unusual chemistry of protein with role in neurodegenerative disorders

July 27, 2017
A common feature of neurodegenerative diseases is the formation of permanent tangles of insoluble proteins in cells. The beta-amyloid plaques found in people with Alzheimer's disease and the inclusion bodies in motor neurons ...

Mother's brain reward response to offspring reduced by substance addiction

July 27, 2017
Maternal addiction and its effects on children is a major public health problem, often leading to high rates of child abuse, neglect and foster care placement. In a study published today in the journal Human Brain Mapping, ...

'Residual echo' of ancient humans in scans may hold clues to mental disorders

July 26, 2017
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have produced the first direct evidence that parts of our brains implicated in mental disorders may be shaped by a "residual echo" from our ancient past. The more ...

Laser used to reawaken lost memories in mice with Alzheimer's disease

July 26, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at Columbia University has found that applying a laser to the part of a mouse brain used for memory storage caused the mice to recall memories lost due to a mouse version of Alzheimer's ...

Cognitive cross-training enhances learning, study finds

July 25, 2017
Just as athletes cross-train to improve physical skills, those wanting to enhance cognitive skills can benefit from multiple ways of exercising the brain, according to a comprehensive new study from University of Illinois ...

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.