This application is aimed at furthering our understanding of the molecular basis for the neurodegenerative disease Friedreich's ataxia (FRDA), in the hope that this knowledge will lead to improved therapeutics for the disease. FRDA is caused by transcriptional repression of the nuclear FXN gene encoding the essential mitochondrial protein frataxin. Gene repression is due to expansion of a GAA7TTC triplet-repeat in an intron of FXN, which leads to heterochromatin formation. Based on the hypothesis that the acetylation state of the histone proteins is responsible for gene silencing, we identified a novel class of HDAC inhibitors that relieve repression of the FXN gene in lymphoid cells derived from FRDA patients, and in a mouse model for the disease. The HDAC inhibitors act directly on the histones associated with the FXN gene, increasing acetylation at particular lysine residues on histones H3 and H4, providing direct evidence for a role for chromatin structure in gene silencing. While these results are encouraging, studies in FRDA pathogenesis and therapeutic development are limited by the availability of an appropriate neuronal cell model in which to study the molecular events that lead to FXN gene silencing and to test possible new therapeutics. We have taken a novel approach to generate neuronal cells and cell lines for our studies on the mechanism of triplet repeat- mediated silencing of the FXN gene. We have generated induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from FRDA patient fibroblasts, and shown that these cells retain repression of the FXN gene. These cells can be differentiated into neuronal cells in vitro, and used as a model for exploring the mechanisms of FXN gene silencing. Based on the hypothesis that either the DNA sequence or structure of expanded repeats forms the binding site for cellular proteins that initiate gene silencing, we will use both genetic and biochemical methods to identify proteins that bind GAA7TTC triplet repeats. Chromatin immunoprecipitation methods will be used to verify that these proteins do indeed interact with silenced FXN genes in cell lines derived from FRDA patients, and siRNA approaches will be used to test the role of these proteins in FXN gene silencing. We will identify the histone deacetylase enzyme(s) associated with inactive FXN alleles, and similarly use siRNA methods to verify the role of this enzyme(s) in gene repression. We will examine histone postsynthetic modification states and heterochromatin proteins in FXN gene regulation in normal and FRDA FXN alleles. The mechanism of action of the HDAC inhibitors in gene activation will be determined. New targets for therapeutic intervention and therapeutic agents may be identified based on the outcome of these studies.

Public Health Relevance

This application is aimed at understanding the molecular basis for gene silencing in the inherited neurological disease Friedreich's ataxia. This disease is caused by expansion of repeats of the simple DNA sequence GAA in an essential human gene that codes for a protein called frataxin. These DNA repeats silence the gene, possibly by packaging the frataxin gene in an inactive chromosomal environment. By studying the mechanisms whereby these repeats silence frataxin gene expression, new therapeutic strategies will come from these studies.

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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Gwinn, Katrina
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Scripps Research Institute
La Jolla
United States
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