The researchers believe that this mechanism may be important in a number of age-related neurological disorders.
In the study, the scientists demonstrate that absence of a gene known as progranulin leads to errant splicing of a protein that usually operates within the nucleus of a nerve cell (neuron). When cut these proteins move into the body of the cell, and begin to stick together and form a thicket that grows, eventually disrupting the normal functioning of the neuron, the researchers say.
Clumps of this protein, TDP-43, have been found in a number of older age dementias, including Alzheimer's Disease (AD), Frontal Temporal Dementia (FTD), and in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Not only does the study potentially explain why TDP-43 pathology is present in a number of neurodegenerative diseases, it also offers new research routes to take in looking for beneficial treatments, according to the study's lead investigator, Leonard Petrucelli, Ph.D.
"Our work opens opportunities on possible future therapeutic applications, from approaches to novel drug discovery to the continued exploration of cell survival systems," he says.
Mayo investigators filled in this piece of the dementia puzzle by exploring possible connections between two recent ground-breaking discoveries.
In July, 2006, Mayo researchers reported in Nature that a form of FTD not caused by tau accumulation in neurons was due to mutations in the progranulin gene. Progranulin produces a protein that helps neurons survive, and so far, the research group has found more than 40 different mutations in the gene can directly cause FTD.
The second study, reported in October, 2006, in Science by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, found that the protein clogging brains of patients with FTD and ALS is TDP-43. The protein was recovered from post-mortem brain tissue and was found only in areas affected by the diseases. For example, in ALS patients it was found in the spinal cord motor neurons which control movement, and in patients with FTD, which is second most common form of dementia in people under age 65, clumps of TDP-43 were found in the frontal and temporal lobes which control the judgment and thought process disrupted in the disease. In its normal state, TDP-43 is believed to help genes produce proteins.
In this study, Mayo researchers investigated whether progranulin is involved in TDP-43 processing. Suppressing progranulin expression in neurons led to accumulation of TDP-43 fragments, they found, and further discovered that this cleavage depends on the caspase 3 enzyme. Caspases cut other proteins and thus play a crucial role in pushing a cell to die when it needs to. It makes sense that these caspase might be activated when progranulin is mutated, Dr. Petrucelli says, because loss of progranulin can activate cell death signalling.
"We are now looking into how mutations in progranulin leads to an increase in caspase activity," he said.
"Progranulin could be acting a protective chaperone where it binds to TDP-43, and may protect it from cleavage," he added.
Theoretically, suppression of caspase 3 might stop the cutting and accumulation of TDP-43, but such a strategy could not work clinically given that caspases are needed throughout the body for normal functioning.
"However, it might be possible to identify other compounds that specifically prevent the fragmentation and redistribution of TDP-43, and that is an issue we are now studying," Dr. Petrucelli said.
At this point, researchers don't know if progranulin mutations are present in ALS or in AD.
The study is published in the Sept. 26 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.