Tag Archives: premature termination codon

Duchenne muscular dystrophy — a novel genetic treatment

Could the innumerable genetic defects underlying Duchenne muscular dystrophy all be treated the same way?  Possibly.  Paradoxically, the treatment involves actually making the gene  even worse.

Understanding how and why this might work involves a very deep dive into molecular biology.  You might start by looking at the series of five background articles I wrote — start at https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/molecular-biology-survival-guide-for-chemists-i-dna-and-protein-coding-gene-structure/ and follow the links.

I have a personal interest in Duchenne muscular dystrophy because I ran such a clinic from ’72 to ’87 watching young boys and adolescents die from it.  The major advance during that time, was NOT medical or anything I did, but lighter braces, so the boys could stay ambulatory longer.  Things have improved as survival has improved by a decade so they die in their late 20s.

So lets start.  Duchenne muscular dystrophy is caused by a mutation in the gene coding for dystrophin, a large (3,685 amino acids) protein which ties the contractile apparatus of the muscle cell (actin and myosin) to the cell membrane. Although it isn’t the largest protein we have — titin, another muscle protein with 34,350 amino acids is, the gene for dystrophin is the largest we have, weighing in at 2,220,233 nucleotides.  This is why Duchenne is one of the most common diseases due to a defect in a single gene, the gene is so large that lots of things can (and do) go wrong with it.

The gene comes in 79 pieces (exons) which account for under 1/200 of the nucleotides of the gene.  The rest must be spliced out and discarded.  Have a look at http://www.dmd.nl.  to see what can go wrong — the commonest is deletion of parts of the gene (60 – 70% of cases), followed by duplication of other parts (10% of cases) with the rest being mutations that change one amino acid to another.

Duchenne isn’t like cystic fibrosis where some 600 different mutations in the causative CFTR gene were known by 2003 but with 90% of cases due to just one.  So any genetic treatment for that young boy sitting in front of you had better be personalized to his particular mutation.

Or should it?

Possibly not.  We’ll need to discuss 3 things first

l. Nonsense Mediated Decay (NMD)

2. Nonsense Induced Transcriptional Compensation (NITC).

3. The MDX mouse model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy

Nonsense mediated decay.  Nonsense is a poor term, because the 3 nonSense codons (out of 64 possible) tell the ribosome to stop translating mRNA into protein and drop off the mRNA.  That isn’t nonsense.  I prefer stop codon, or termination codon

An an incredibly clever piece of business tells the ribosome (which is after all an inanimate object) when a stop codon occurs too early in the mRNA when there are a bunch of codons afterwards needed to make up the whole protein.

Lets go back to dystrophin and its 79 exons, and the fact that 99.5% of the gene is made of introns which are spliced out.   Remember the mRNA starts at the 5′ end and ends at the 3′ end.  The ribosome reads and translates it from 5′ to 3′. When an intron is spliced out, a protein complex of several proteins is placed on the mRNA some 20 – 24 basepairs 5′ to the splice site (this happens in the nucleus way before the mRNA gets near a ribosome in the cytoplasm).  The complex is called the Exon Junction Complex (EJC). The ribosome then happily munches along the mRNA from 5′ to 3′ knocking off the EJCs as it moves, until it hits a termination codon and drops off.

Over 95% of  genes do not have introns after the termination codon.  What happens if it does? Well then it is called a premature termination codon (PTC) and there is usually an EJC 3′ (downstream) to it.  If a termination codon is present 50 -55 nucleotides 5′ (upstream) to an EJC then NMD occurs.

Whenever any termination codon is reached, release protein factors (eRF1, eRF3, SMG1) bind to the mRNA.  It there is an EJC around (which there shouldn’t be) the interaction between the two complexes triggers phosphorylation of one of EJC proteins, triggering NMD.

So that’s how NMD happens, when there is a PTC.  Clever no?

Nonsense Induced Transcriptional Compensation (NITC).  I realize that this is a lot to throw at you, but a treatment for Duchenne is worth the effort (not to mention other genetic diseases in which the mechanism to be described also applies).

NITC is something I never heard about until two papers appearing in the 13 April Nature (vol. 568 pp. 179 – 180 (editorial), 193 – 197, 259 – 263).  Ever since we could knock out by placing a PTC early (near the 5′ end) of the gene we’ve been surprised by some of the results –e.g. knocking out some genes thought to be crucial had little or no effect.  Other technologies which didn’t affect the gene, but which decreased the expression of the mRNA (such as RNA interference, aka Post-Transcriptional gene silencing — PTGS) did have big phenotypic effects.

This turns out to be due NITC, which turns out to be due to increased transcription of genes which are ancestrally related to the mutant. Gene.  Hard to believe.

Time to go back to NMD.  It doesn’t break mRNA down nucleotide by nucleotide, but fragments it.  These fragments get into the nucleus, and bind to complementary genomic sequences of the PTC gene, and also to genes ancestrally related to the mutant gene (so they’ll have similar nucleotide sequences). Then epigenetics takes over because the fragments recruit the COMPASS complex which catalyzes the formation of H3K4Me3 which is part of the histone code which helps turn on transcription of the gene.  The sequence similarity of ancestrally related genes, allows them and only them to be turned on by NITC.  Even cleverer than finding a PTC by the ribosome.

Something so incredible needs evidence.  Well heterozygotic zebrafish can bemade to have one normal gene and one with a PTC. What do you think happens?  The normal gene is upregulated (e.g. more is made).  Pretty good.

Finally the Mdx mouse.  I’ve been reading about it for years.  It has a PTC in exon 23 of the dystrophin gene, resulting in a protein only 27% as long as it should be.  All sorts of therapeutic maneuvers have been tried on it.  Now any drug development chemist will tell you that animal models are lousy, but they’re all we’ve got.

The remarkable thing about the mdx mouse, is that they don’t get weak.  They do have muscle pathology.  All the verbiage above probably explains why.

So to treat ALL forms of Duchenne put in a premature termination codon (PTC) in exon #23 of the human gene. It should work as there are  4 dystrophin related proteins scattered around the genome — their names are — utrophin, dystrophin related protein 2 (DRP2), alpha dystrobrevin, and beta dystrobrevin

There is an even better way to look for a place to put a PTC in the dystrophin gene.  Our genomes are filled with errors — for details see — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2018/05/01/how-badly-are-thy-genomes-oh-humanity-take-ii/.

There are lots of very normal people around with supposedly lethal mutations (including PTCs) in their genomes.  Probably scattered about various labs are at least 1,000,000 exome sequences in presumably normal people.  I’m not sure how much clinical information about them is available (other than that they are normal).  Hopeful their sex is.  Look at the dystrophin gene of normal males (females can be perfectly healthy carrying a mutant dystrophin gene as it is found on the X chromosome and they have 2) and see if PTCs are to be found.  You can’t have a better animal model than that.

At over 1,000 words this is the longest post I’ve written, and hopefully the most useful.

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Another research idea yours for the taking

How many of our 20,000 or so protein coding genes are essential for human existence?  There is a way to find out with no human experimentation whatsoever.  Even better, probably all the data is out there.  Looking at it the right way, finding and collating it is where you come in.  Be warned, it would be a lot of work.

Previous work [ Science vol. 350 pp. 1028 – 1029, 1092 – 1096, 1096 – 1101 ’15 ] came up with the idea that only 2,000 or so of our protein coding genes were truly essential.  The authors cleverly looked at a ‘near haploid’ chronic myelogenous leukemia cell line (KBM7).  Then because only one copy of a gene was present, they systematically knocked out gene after gene using CRISPR and looked at viability.

Similar work in yeast stated that only 1,000 of its 6,000 protein coding genes were essential.

But this is single cell stuff.  What about living breathing people?

Where is this data?  How should it be interrogated?  See if you can figure it out before reading further.

Probably more has been done since Science vol. 337 pp. 64 – 69 ’12 sequenced just the portion of our genome coding for proteins (the exomes) in 1,351 Europeans and 1,088 Africans.  Each individual had 35 premature termination codons, meaning that the gene likely didn’t produce a functional protein.  The average person also had 13,595 single nucleotide polymorphisms (from the standard genome), and probably some of them a less than functional protein.

Do you see how you could use this sort of thing to find out which genes are essential to our existence?

People sequence exomes because it’s easy and because the exome accounts for only 2% of our genome.

My guess is that probably a million exomes have been sequenced thus far, if not more.

So all you have to do is look at all million exome sequences and all 20,000 protein coding genes, and see —

In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories the following dialog appears

Gregory (Scotland Yard): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

The curious incident would be a gene which never (or rarely) had a premature termination codon in the 1,000,000 or so exomes.  That would imply that it was essential for the existence of a living breathing human being.

Cute !  Well I’m a retired neurologist with no academic affiliation — take the idea and run with it.

Addendum 31 Mar ’19 – I received the following comment from Bryan

You may be interested in reading this pre-print on the topic:
Variation across 141,456 human exomes and genomes reveals the spectrum of loss-of-function intolerance across human protein-coding genes https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/531210v2

To which I replied
    • Bryan– thanks for the link. It was a good enough idea that the people at the Broad Institute had thought of it and carried it out. As people in grad school used to say when they got scooped on a paper — at least we were thinking well.

      It was hard to tell from reading the preprint whether there were genes with no pLoF (predicted loss of function) proving them essential. They do say that the 678 genes essential for human cell viability (characterized by CRISPR screening were ‘depleted’ for pLoF.