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UK biochemists gain new insight into ALS

Two scientists look at computer
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/ by UK HealthCare

Researchers at UK have discovered new biological processes by which mutations in the Fused in Sarcoma (FUS) gene cause neurodegeneration in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

FUS is a DNA-binding and RNA-binding protein that resides mainly in the nucleus and appears to play a role in DNA repair and RNA metabolism. In contrast, ALS-related mutations cause the protein to build up in the cytoplasm, which can contribute to inclusion bodies – the pathological hallmarks of disease – and neurotoxicity.

A group led by Haining Zhu, a professor in the Department of Molecular & Cellular Biochemistry at UK, discovered that the ALS-causing mutant FUS protein interferes with protein translation and related messenger RNA quality control, which ultimately leads to neuron death and ALS. 

The group developed a new protocol to biochemically capture the dynamic mutant FUS-positive inclusion bodies and then identified protein components by proteomic approaches. 

“Based on such proteomic data, we followed up with subsequent studies and were able to demonstrate that the ALS mutations in FUS indeed suppressed protein translation and altered the nonsense mediated decay (NMD) pathway, whose function is to reduce errors in gene expression," said Zhu. "Our findings provide an in-depth understanding of how RNA metabolism and protein translation are impacted by mutations in FUS and produce new insights into the disease-causing mechanism of FUS-ALS."

The findings were published in the Nov. 19 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

What is ALS?

ALS is a progressive neurological disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord and eventually steals from its victims the ability to walk, dress, write, speak, swallow and breathe. Most ALS patients die within five years of diagnosis, and there is currently no cure.

ALS has afflicted scientists, writers, and athletes, including physicist Stephen Hawking, actor/playwright Sam Shepard, and of course Major League Baseball hall-of-famer Lou Gehrig, who gave ALS its second name.

Approximately 15 percent of ALS cases are familial, and mutations in the FUS gene contribute to a subset of familial ALS cases. This gene mutation is particularly cruel because while the average age of onset for ALS is about 65, people with a mutation in the FUS gene tend to get ALS in their 30s and 40s.

Even though a fraction of ALS is caused by faulty genes, Dr. Edward Kasarskis, director of the ALS Multidisciplinary Clinic at UK and co-author of the PNAS paper, believes that the work of Zhu and his colleagues provides important data that will inform the study of idiopathic ALS, where the cause of the disease is spontaneous or unknown.

"I share the belief of the larger scientific community that unlocking the mystery of genetic forms of ALS will provide insight into the other 80 to 90 percent of cases that have no known cause," he said. "Haining's work has tremendous impact on the entire ALS field."

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