Research indicates that what apparently accounts for the dormancy of an allele on Angelman syndrome is a strand of ribonucleic acid known as antisense RNA, which in terms of gene expression keeps paternal Ube3a silenced, or off. Once referred to as the genome's "dark matter," antisense RNA makes no functioning gene product, but works to repress expression of another gene by binding to its RNA.
"We wanted to determine if there could be a way to "awaken" the dormant allele and restore Ube3a expression in neurons," said neuroscientist Benjamin D. Philpot, PhD, associate professor of cell and molecular physiology, one of three senior investigators in the study and a member of the UNC Neuroscience Center.
In a report of the research published online Dec. 21,2011 in the journal Nature, the interdisciplinary team of UNC scientists say they have found a way to "awaken" the paternal allele of Ube3a, which could lead to a potential treatment strategy for AS.
"We have taken advantage of a tool that allows us to distinguish between active and inactive alleles," Philpot said. "That tool is a modified mouse that's engineered so that the Ube3a gene has a fluorescent 'reporter' gene attached to it, which tells you when the gene is on or when it's off. When the gene is on, neurons will fluoresce in yellow, but won't when the gene is off."
Other 'tools' available on the UNC campus come from study senior author Bryan L. Roth, MD, PhD, Michael Hooker Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology and Translational Proteomics and director of the National Institute of Mental Health Psychoactive Drug Screening Program. These include highly automated robotics of the sort normally found in major pharmaceutical companies: fluid handling robotics and automated high-content imaging that combine the molecular tools of modern cell biology with automated high resolution microscopy and robotic handling (see http://pdspdb.unc.edu/download/robotLab2011.php).
Using a library of FDA-approved drugs obtained from the National Institute of Health (the NIH Clinical Collection) the UNC team discovered that irinotecan, a topoisomerase (TOPO-EYE-SOM-ERASE) inhibitor known to be active in the central nervous system -- robustly 'awakened' Ube3a. Subsequently, the team identified the FDA approved medication topotecan and several other topoisomerase inhibitors as drugs which can 'awaken' Ube3a.
When topotecan was given to the genetically engineered mice, "it unsilenced the paternal Ube3a allele in several regions of the nervous system, including neurons in several areas of the brain and in the spinal cord," the authors state. These findings also held true for irinotecan.
The study's third senior co-author, neuroscientist Mark J, Zylka, PhD, assistant professor of cell and molecular physiology and a UNC Neuroscience Center member says the study is "the first example of a drug that regulates antisense RNA and, as a result, regulates [protein] levels of a coding gene."
According to Philpot, the increased scientific interest in Ube3a is because certain DNA copies, or duplications, in maternal chromosome 15 are associated with classic forms of autism. "If you have too little Ube3a you have Angelman syndrome. If the maternal allele is duplicated, it might be a contributing factor to autism."
Zylka and Philpot caution against using topoisomerase inhibitors now to treat Angelman syndrome, given the limits of current knowledge.
"We'd like to stress that these compounds are not ready to be used clinically for Angelman syndrome," Zylka said. "We don't know what the off-target effects might be on a gene or genes with similar DNA sequences. We need to figure out optimal concentrations and dosing before we move to clinical trials. And we need to determine which drug is best."
For people to use these drugs now for Angelman syndrome, without further preclinical studies, might be a health risk, Philpot adds, "one that could jeopardize successfully bringing these compounds to clinical trials."