Theses Doctoral

Characterization of motor pool selectivity of neuromuscular degeneration and identification of molecular correlates of disease resistance in Type I spinal muscular atrophy

Lee, Justin

Selective neuronal loss in response to loss or dysfunction of a ubiquitously expressed protein is a hallmark of neurodegenerative disease. Proximal spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is caused by homozygous loss of the ubiquitously expressed survival motor neuron 1 (SMN1) gene, resulting in progressive neuromuscular weakness that eventually leads to flaccid paralysis and death from respiratory failure by two years of age in the most severely affected patients. Despite widespread motor neuron loss, certain motor pools are clinically spared. Type I SMA patients exhibit intercostal recession in conjunction with diaphragmatic sparing that produces a characteristic “bell-shaped chest.” Additionally, patients retain extraocular and external sphincter function, even in late disease stages.
In order to fully define this differential vulnerability, I performed an extensive characterization of neuromuscular autopsies from Type I SMA patients and age-matched control patients. I found highly divergent degrees of motor unit degeneration, even within individual cranial nerves or a select anatomical region such as the neck. Remarkably, the diaphragm in a Type I SMA patient kept alive on life support for 17 years was still relatively preserved, despite virtually complete fibro-fatty infiltration in other muscles. Extraocular functions were also normal in this patient. These findings suggest that the molecular determinants of SMA-resistance provide indefinite protection against low SMN protein. Thus, identification and modulation of these genes and pathways represents a promising potential therapeutic strategy.
Remarkably, this exquisite pattern of selectivity was preserved in the SMNΔ7 mouse, a widely used SMA mouse model. This suggests that the molecular determinants of differential vulnerability are conserved between mouse and human. Given the high degree of diversity between motor pools, I performed a comparative transcriptional microarray between multiple SMA-vulnerable and –resistant motor pools in healthy mice. This analysis revealed a small number of candidate therapeutic genes that segregate closely with vulnerability. I present a series of preliminary studies evaluating these targets in the SMNΔ7 mouse. Ongoing and future studies combine pharmacological, viral, and genetic approaches to modulate these candidate targets in the SMNΔ7 mouse and assess for improvements in neuromuscular pathology. Given the remarkable preservation of select motor pools in SMA patients, changing expression levels of the candidate targets I have identified may provide substantial clinical benefit.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Neurobiology and Behavior
Thesis Advisors
Henderson, Christopher E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 2, 2015