Huntington's disease (HD), the most common adult onset heritable neurodegenerative disease, is caused by a polyglutamine (polyQ) expansion in the huntingtin (htt) protein and characterized by aggregation of htt into visible intracellular structures called inclusion bodies (IBs). When this project began, the field was divided about the role of IBs in HD;conventional approaches could not resolve the issue. To advance our understanding of HD pathogenesis, we developed a robotic microscope to observe htt induce degeneration and to relate specific molecular changes in each neuron to its ultimate fate. We discovered that levels of diffuse mutant htt predict when neurons degenerate. Remarkably, IB formation led to an abrupt drop in levels of diffuse mutant htt and improved survival compared to similar neurons that did not form IBs. We concluded that IB formation can be a coping response to toxic species of diffuse mutant htt. If IB formation is not the source of HD pathology, what is? Our preliminary data show that some neurons clear IBs altogether and that levels of diffuse mutant htt remain low even after IBs are gone. We hypothesize that IB formation is one part of a broad beneficial adaptive response by neurons to toxic species of malfolded proteins. This response upregulates proteasome- and autophagy-dependent turnover pathways that shorten the half-life of htt, reducing levels of toxic htt species and leading to the clearance of IBs.
In Aim 1, we will test this idea by identifying pathways that govern htt metabolism and determining if IB formation is associated with beneficial adaptive changes in htt turnover. We will exploit new technology and our robotic microscope to optically pulse-label htt in individual neurons and follow their fates.
In Aim 2, we will determine the extent to which mutant htt induces autophagy in neurons and if the induction of autophagy predicts which neurons will survive. Finally, since htt is required for survival, what htt species is toxic? Does it have a structure that could reveal how it causes degeneration? During the previous period, we made a monoclonal antibody, 3B5H10, that binds a species of diffuse mutant htt and strongly predicts degeneration. To surpass the ability of our robotic microscope to resolve these species, we used crystallography and small-angle x-ray scattering to find that 3B5H10 recognizes a compact structure of polyQ within a monomer of mutant htt.
In Aim 3, we will define the structure of the compact conformation of disease-associated polyQ that is recognized by 3B5H10 and use a single-chain version of 3B5H10 expressed in neurons to begin to relate this structure back to the neurodegenerative processes that are the focus of the first two aims. This project is significant because it will elucidate pathogenic mechanisms and therapeutic targets for HD, as it did during the previous period;the findings should also be relevant to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

Public Health Relevance

This project aims to understand mechanisms of neurodegeneration in Huntington's disease (HD). During the previous funding period, we invented a robotic microscope that is helpful for unraveling the causes and effects of disease processes. We applied it to a neuron model of HD and made the surprising discovery that the abnormal protein deposits seen in brains of HD patients may be coping responses to more toxic forms of the protein. We also generated an antibody that binds to a version of htt that predicts degeneration very well and may be a toxic species of htt. We used that antibody to uncover features of the structure of mutant htt to which it binds. We hope to continue this research program, and we have proposed experiments that will help us understand if these protein deposits might be part of a broader beneficial adaptive response of neurons to malfolded proteins. We also want to use more targeted approaches to understand the structure of mutant htt that we have discovered. We expect that this program will reveal important pathogenic mechanisms and therapeutic targets that may be relevant to HD and other more common diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
Research Project (R01)
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Cellular and Molecular Biology of Neurodegeneration Study Section (CMND)
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Sutherland, Margaret L
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J. David Gladstone Institutes
San Francisco
United States
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Tsvetkov, Andrey S; Ando, D Michael; Finkbeiner, Steven (2013) Longitudinal imaging and analysis of neurons expressing polyglutamine-expanded proteins. Methods Mol Biol 1017:1-20
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