A new genetic mutation that causes familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurological disorder also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, has been identified by a team of scientists led by researchers at UMass Medical School. Mutations to the profilin (PFN1) gene, which is essential to the growth and development of nerve cell axons, is estimated to account for one to two percent of inherited ALS cases. The finding, described today in the online edition of Nature, points to defects in a neuron’s cytoskeleton structure as a potential common feature among diverse ALS genes.
Robert H. Brown Jr., DPhil , MD, professor and chair of neurology and co-author of the study, said “Dr. Landers has done great work in defining this new pathway for motor neuron death. We are delighted to have identified the defects in families from the United States, Israel and France that we have been investigating for several years. Our finding is particularly exciting because it may provide new insights into ALS treatment targets.”
ALS is a progressive, neurodegenerative disorder affecting the motor neurons in the central nervous system. As motor neurons die, the brain’s ability to send signals to the body’s muscles is compromised. This leads to loss of voluntary muscle movement, paralysis and eventually respiratory failure. The cause of most cases of ALS is not known. Approximately 10 percent of cases are inherited. Though investigators at UMMS and elsewhere have identified several genes shown to cause inherited or familial ALS, almost 50 percent of these cases have an unknown genetic cause.
The current Nature study details the discovery of the PFN1 gene mutation among two large ALS families. Both families were negative for known ALS-causing mutations and displayed familial relationships that suggested a dominant inheritance mode for the disease. For each family, two affected members with maximum genetic distance were selected for deep DNA sequencing. To identify an ALS-causing mutation, genetic variations between the family members were identified and screened against known databases of human genetic variation, such as the 1000 Genomes Project. This narrowed down the resulting number of candidate, ALS-causing mutations to two within the first family and three within the second. Interestingly, both families contained different mutations within the same gene—PFN1, the likely causative mutation. With additional screening, the team documented that in a total of 274 families sequenced, seven contained a mutation to the PFN1 gene, establishing it as a likely cause for ALS.
While it is not certain how the PFN1 mutation causes ALS, the cellular functions it controls within the motor neurons are responsible for regulation of a number of activities, including the growth and development of the axon, the slender projection through which neurons transmit electrical impulses to neighboring cells, such as muscle. When introduced into motor neuron cells, normal PFN1 protein was found diffused throughout the cytoplasm. Conversely, the mutant PFN1 observed in ALS patients was found to collect in dense aggregates, keeping it from functioning properly. Motor neurons producing mutated PFN1 showed markedly shorter axon outgrowth.
“In healthy neurons, PFN1 acts almost like a railroad tie for fibrous filaments called actin, which make up the axon” said Dr. Landers. “PFN1 helps bind these filaments to each other, promoting outgrowth of the axon. Without properly functioning PFN1 these filaments can’t come together. Here we show that mutant PFN1 may contribute to ALS pathogeneses by accumulating in these aggregates and altering the actin dynamics in a way that inhibits axon outgrowth.”
“The discovery that mutant PFN1 interferes with axon outgrowth was very exciting to us,” said Claudia Fallini, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Emory University School of Medicine who collaborated with the UMMS authors to investigate PFN1's functions in cultured motor neurons. “It suggests that alterations in actin dynamics may be an important mechanism at the basis of motor neuron degeneration.”