Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) are common neurodegenerative disorders that disproportionately affect aging veterans. These disorders are progressive, fatal, and without effective treatment. Recently, the most common known cause of ALS and FTD was identified as an intronic GGGGCC hexanucleotide repeat expansion in the gene C9orf72 (C9FTD/ALS). This repeat triggers synthesis of toxic proteins via a process known as Repeat Associated Non-AUG (RAN) Translation. These RAN peptides kill neurons and sufficient to cause neurodegeneration in model systems. We know very little about how RAN translation at C9 repeats (C9 RAN) actually occurs. The objective of this proposal is to determine the mechanisms underlying C9 RAN and to identify methods of blocking it as a first step towards novel therapeutic development. Our central hypothesis is that C9 RAN utilizes a non-canonical translational initiation pathway that can be selectively blocked. Moreover, we predict that preventing C9 RAN will stop neurodegeneration elicited by GGGGCC repeats. To test these hypotheses, we developed a robust and quantitative in vitro assay of C9 RAN, as well as a collection of models derived from patient induced pluripotent stem cells, rodent neurons, and Drosophila. Using these tools, we will define the mRNA species that undergo C9 RAN, identify the critical RNA and protein based factors that allow for C9 RAN, develop a small molecule screen to identify selective C9 RAN translation inhibitors, and test whether blocking RAN precludes toxicity in model systems. Together, these studies should provide us with a working map of how C9 RAN occurs and what steps can be taken to prevent it. This project has broad reaching implications both for our understanding of how RAN translation contributes to disease as well as providing a logical path towards therapeutic development in C9FTD/ALS and other neurodegenerative nucleotide repeat disorders that affect veterans.
ALS and other neurodegenerative disorders lead to significant death and disability in US Veterans. Recently, a novel mutation was identified as the most common cause of ALS and Frontotemporal Dementia (C9ALS). This repeat causes ALS at least in part by producing toxic proteins through an unusual process known as RAN translation. This proposal will use biochemical techniques, neurons and patient derived induced pluripotent stem cell models of C9ALS to understand how RAN translation occurs and how it can be selectively blocked in ALS patients. These approaches will lay the groundwork for developing small molecule therapeutics for this currently untreatable disease.