UC DAVIS (US) — A new therapy uses stem cells to deliver therapy that specifically targets the genetic abnormality found in Huntington’s disease.
A hereditary brain disorder that causes uncontrolled movement, dementia, and death, Huntington’s disease can be managed with medications, but currently there are no treatments for the physical, mental, and behavioral decline of its victims.
“For the first time, we have been able to successfully deliver inhibitory RNA sequences from stem cells directly into neurons, significantly decreasing the synthesis of the abnormal huntingtin protein,” says Jan A. Nolta, principal investigator of the study and director of the stem cell program and the Institute for Regenerative Cures at the University of California, Davis.
“Our team has made a breakthrough that gives families affected by this disease hope that genetic therapy may one day become a reality.”
As reported online in the journal Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, Nolta and other experts think the best chance to halt the disease’s progression will be to reduce or eliminate the mutant huntingtin (htt) protein found in the neurons of those with the disease. RNA interference (RNAi) technology has been shown to be highly effective at reducing htt protein levels and reversing disease symptoms in mouse models.
“Our challenge with RNA interference technology is to figure out how to deliver it into the human brain in a sustained, safe, and effective manner,” says Nolta, whose lab recently received funding from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to develop an RNAi delivery system for Huntington’s disease. “We’re exploring how to use human stem cells to create RNAi production factories within the brain.”
Huntington’s disease affects more than a quarter of a million Americans. The disorder can be passed down through families even if only one parent has the abnormal huntingtin gene.
The disease is caused by a mutation in the gene, which is comprised of an abnormally repeating building block of DNA that appears on the fourth chromosome. While the building block pattern normally repeats up to 28 times on the chromosome, too many repeats cause an abnormal form of protein—known as the huntingtin protein—to be made.
The huntingtin protein accumulates in the brain, causing the disease’s devastating progression. Individuals usually develop symptoms in middle age if there are more than 35 repeats. A more rare form of the disease occurs in youth when the abnormal DNA pattern repeats many more times.
The new research team shows for the first time that inhibitory RNA sequences can be transferred directly from donor cells into target cells to greatly reduce unwanted protein synthesis from the mutant gene. To transfer the inhibitory RNA sequences into their targets, Nolta’s team genetically engineered mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which were derived from the bone marrow of unaffected human donors.
Over the past two decades, Nolta and her colleagues have shown MSCs to be safe and effective vehicles to deliver enzymes and proteins to other cells. Finding that MSCs can also transfer RNA molecules directly from cell to cell, in amounts sufficient to reduce levels of a mutant protein by over 50 percent in the target cells, is a discovery that has never been reported before and offers great promise for a variety of disorders.
“Not only is finding new treatments for Huntington’s disease a worthwhile pursuit on its own, but the lessons we are learning are applicable to developing new therapies for other genetic disorders that involve excessive protein development and the need to reduce it,” Nolta says.
“We have high hopes that these techniques may also be utilized in the fight against some forms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) as well as Parkinson’s and other conditions.”
Researchers from the University of Texas and the Washington University in St. Louis contributed to the study that was funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and Team KJ.
More news from UC Davis: http://www.news.ucdavis.edu/