Scientists have identified a new gene responsible for Leber Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), a devastating genetic form of blindness in newborns.
What makes this discovery so exceptional is that this new gene called NMNAT1 - known to be crucial for life - has never been associated with any human disease. This is the first time such a major correlation has been established. The study was published today in the journal Nature Genetics.
"This is probably one of the most important discoveries in neuroscience and blindness in the past 15 years," said Dr. Robert Koenekoop, first author of the study, Director of the McGill Ocular Genetics Laboratory at the Montreal Children's Hospital of the MUHC and Associate Professor in Human Genetics and Ophthalmology in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. "Researchers have been looking for the link between NMNAT1 mutations and human disease in the brain or body for many years".
"Dr Koenekoop and his international colleagues have had tremendous success in uncovering and understanding the genetics of LCA," said Sharon Colle, President and CEO of the Foundation Fighting Blindness Canada. "We are proud to support him with the help of our generous donors. Identifying these mutations helps families struggling with this rare disease get a firm diagnosis, which is the first step towards potential treatments."
As with many scientific breakthroughs, establishing the connection between NMNAT1 and LCA challenged researchers to question long-held beliefs. Using cutting-edge genetic technology the team began by analyzing the entire genome of 60 infants with LCA. They excluded genes already known in order to maximize their chances of identifying new ones. "When we discovered the new gene was NMNAT1 we thought it was impossible, because - from bacteria to human - it plays such an important role in life that we believed if you had a mutation on NMNAT1 you would die," explained Dr. Koenekoop.
The gene NMNAT1 is found in every single cell in the human body. It produces a vital coenzyme called NAD, involved in hundreds of reactions in the cell. NMNAT1 is surprisingly also part of a rescue mechanism that slows down degeneration of neurons, and thus helps prevent the onset of many diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
"Our findings will have immediate therapeutic implications for blindness and may open the door to new treatments for other neurodegenerative diseases," added Dr. Rui Chen, senior author of the study and an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
"Because higher levels of NAD have been shown to significantly delay degeneration of neurons, our team's work raises the exciting possibility that giving NAD as a drug in young LCA patients with NMNAT1 mutations may be a potential therapeutic option to cure blindness in the near future," concluded Dr. Koenekoop.