Targeting the ubiquitin proteasome system to develop novel therapeutic approaches for spinal muscular atrophy
Powis, Rachael Anita
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Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a severe genetic neuromuscular disorder characterised by lower motor neuron degeneration and paralysis. Although it is a leading genetic cause of childhood death no approved treatment options currently exist. As SMA is caused by low levels of the survival motor neuron (SMN) protein the majority of therapeutic strategies under development are therefore aimed at trying to elevate SMN levels. However, a number of limitations with these approaches exist demonstrating a need for the investigation of SMN-independent therapeutics. Of these non-classical pathways, the ubiquitin proteasome system (UPS) is an exciting new area of SMA research. The UPS is a system which degrades unwanted or damaged proteins and alterations in the UPS (including reduced levels of ubiquitin-like modifier activating enzyme 1 [Uba1] and increased levels of ubiquitin carboxyl-terminal esterase L1 [Uchl1] and β-catenin) have been recently identified in the neuromuscular system of SMA mice, providing promising new targets for therapy development. In this thesis I demonstrate that UPS perturbations are also present in other organ systems of severe ‘Taiwanese’ SMA mice and in other SMA models including intermediate Smn2B/− mice, zebrafish and patient derived iPSC motor neurons. Given the previously demonstrated improved neuromuscular phenotype in SMA mice treated with the β-catenin inhibitor quercetin I have been establishing whether other compounds with β-catenin inhibition offer similar or even better therapeutic options. Aspirin, indomethacin and iCRT-14 trials did not improve the SMA phenotype with likely off-target adverse effects meaning that quercetin remains the most tolerable β- catenin inhibitor in SMA mice to date. Another potential target of the UPS for SMA therapeutics is the deubiquitinating enzyme Uchl1, levels of which are increased in SMA. In this thesis I show that pharmacological inhibition of Uchl1 did not improve survival or motor performance in SMA mice and instead had a detrimental impact on the disease phenotype which could be explained by worsening SMA ubiquitin defects. Histological analysis revealed that there was no improvement in lower motor neuron count numbers, neuromuscular junction deficits or muscle fibre diameters. Mimicking the UPS phenotype in primary neuronal cells suggested that targeting UPS perturbations observed in SMA that are upstream of Uchl1, particularly the loss of Uba1, may therefore offer a more effective therapeutic option. Finally, I therefore examined whether increasing Uba1 levels in SMA mice using gene therapy technology was able to improve the SMA phenotype. My initial studies indicate that delivery of AAV9-UBA1 to SMA mice may be beneficial as intraperitoneal injection of AAV9-UBA1 was found to increase the weight and improve motor performance of SMA mice. Intravenous delivery of AAV9-UBA1 was found to further improve expression levels and biodistribution of AAV9-UBA1 in the central nervous system as well as systemically in all body organs and tissues. Western blot and proteomic analysis revealed that AAV9-UBA1 gene therapy is also able to correct downstream UPS perturbations found in SMA as well as increase SMN levels. Together, these results suggest that AAV9-UBA1 gene therapy is an exciting novel therapeutic approach for SMA.