NC State, UNC Find New Clues About ALS

Scientists have long known that a protein called TDP-43 clumps together in brain cells of people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and is associated with neuron death. This same protein is thought to cause muscle degeneration in patients with sporadic inclusion body myositis (sIBM), leading many researchers to think that TDP-43 is one of the causative factors in ALS and sIBM. Now, UNC School of Medicine and NC State researchers found that a specific chemical modification called acetylation promotes TDP-43 clumping in animals. Using a natural anti-clumping method in mouse models, the scientists reversed protein clumping in muscle cells and prevented the sIBM-related muscle weakness.

The discovery, published in Nature Communications, has important implications for understanding ALS and sIBM, and for the creation of potential treatments down the road.

“We suspect that getting rid of this abnormal TDP-43 clumping could be a potential therapy for these diseases,” said study senior author Todd J. Cohen, PhD, assistant professor of neurology at UNC. “In principle, we think this reversal of clumping could be achieved by taking an injectable or oral medication. Though, we caution, that’s still a long way off. The research community still has much more work to do.”

TDP-43 normally works in the cell nucleus. It binds to DNA and to the RNA molecules transcribed from DNA. The protein appears to have many important functions in regulating how genes are expressed. Somehow – in people with sIBM, ALS, and a few other degenerative diseases – TDP-43 moves out of the nucleus and into the main volume of the cell, or cytoplasm, and then clumps together. The loss of TDP-43 from the nucleus leads to the failure of normal gene expression regulation. Many scientists suspect that this is the major reason why affected cells die. In ALS, motor neuron death leads to the brain’s inability to control voluntary muscles throughout the body. In sIBM, muscle degeneration leads to muscle weakness and impaired strength.

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Originally published July 27, 2017.

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