Muscular dystrophy is caused by the largest human gene, a complex chemical leviathan that has confounded scientists for decades. Research conducted at the University of Missouri and described this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has identified significant sections of the gene that could provide hope to young patients and families.
MU scientists Dongsheng Duan, PhD, and Yi Lai, PhD, identified a sequence in the dystrophin gene that is essential for helping muscle tissues function, a breakthrough discovery that could lead to treatments for the deadly hereditary disease. The MU researchers "found the proverbial needle in a haystack," according to Scott Harper, PhD, a muscular dystrophy expert at The Ohio State University who is not involved in the study.
Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), predominantly affecting males, is the most common type of muscular dystrophy. Children with DMD face a future of rapidly weakening muscles, which usually leads to death by respiratory or cardiac failure before their 30th birthday.
Patients with DMD have a gene mutation that disrupts the production of dystrophin, a protein essential for muscle cell survival and function. Absence of dystrophin starts a chain reaction that eventually leads to muscle cell degeneration and death. While dystrophin is vital for muscle development, the protein also needs several "helpers" to maintain the muscle tissue. One of these "helper" molecular compounds is nNOS, which produces nitric oxide that can keep muscle cells healthy during exercise.
"Dystrophin not only helps build muscle cells, it's also a key factor to attracting nNOS to the muscle cell membrane, which is important during exercise," Lai said. "Prior to this discovery, we didn't know how dystrophin made nNOS bind to the cell membrane. What we found was that dystrophin has a special 'claw' that is used to grab nNOS and bring it to the muscle cell membrane. Now that we have that key, we hope to begin the process of developing a therapy for patients."
Duan and Lai, scientists with MU's Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, found that two particular sections of the dystrophin gene must be present for nNOS to bind to the muscle cell membrane. The sections of the gene, known as "repeaters 16 & 17," contain a "claw" that can grab nNOS and bring it to the muscle cell membrane so that it will prevent ischemic damage from muscle activity. Without this "claw," nNOS doesn't bind to the cell membrane and the muscle cells are damaged, leading to further problems associated with muscular dystrophy.