mice

One step closer from mice to men

Gene therapy treating the neurodegenerative disease, SMARD1, shows promising results in mice studies.

Shababi uses an instrument to measure grip strength in the forelimbs of mice. Healthy mice are able to cling to the rack with a stronger grip than SMARD1 mice. | photo by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC .

Shababi uses an instrument to measure grip strength in the forelimbs of mice. Healthy mice are able to cling on with a stronger grip than SMARD1 mice. | photo by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC

Monir Shababi was confident her experiments treating a rare genetic disease would yield positive results before she even ran them.

Scientists had success with a similar degenerative neuromuscular disease, so she had every expectation their strategy would work just as well in her mice.

Monir Shababi, assistant research professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology, studies SMARD1 in mice. | photo courtesy of the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology

Monir Shababi, an assistant research professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology, studies SMARD1 in mice. | photo courtesy of the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology

“I was expecting to get the same results,” said Shababi, an assistant research profession in Christian Lorson’s lab at the University of Missouri Bond Life Sciences Center. Shababi studies spinal muscular atrophy with respiratory disease type 1, or SMARD1.

The treatment worked, but not without a few surprises.

Her findings, published in Molecular Therapy, a journal by Nature Publishing Group, are one of the first to show how gene therapy can effectively reverse SMARD1 symptoms in mice.

In patients, SMARD1 is considered such a rare genetic disorder by the U.S. National Library of Medicine that no one knows how frequently the disease occurs. It’s only when babies develop the first symptom—trouble breathing–that pediatricians screen for SMARD1.

Shortly after diagnosis, muscle weakness appears in the hands and feet before spreading inwards to the rest of the body. The average life expectancy for a child diagnosed with SMARD1 is 13 months. There is currently no effective treatment.

Since the neuromuscular disease is caused by a recessive gene, SMARD1 comes as a shock to the parents, who are carriers but do not show signs of the illness, Shababi said. This genetic defect prevents cells from making a particular protein that scientists suspect is vital to replication and protein production.

The hereditary nature of the disease has a silver lining, though. Because SMARD1 is a caused by a single pair of faulty genes and not multiple ones, it is a prime candidate for gene therapy that could restore the missing protein and reverse the disease.

To do that, Shababi set up a dose-response study using a tiny virus to carry the genetic instructions for making the missing protein. She injected newborn mice with a low dose of the virus, a high dose, or a placebo with no virus at all.

Injecting at different doses allowed her to ask which dose worked better, Shababi said.

According to the previous research, a higher dose should have resulted in a more effective treatment.

“So I thought a higher dose was going to work better,” Shababi said.

Instead, the high dose had a toxic effect. Mice given more of the virus died sooner than untreated mice. Meanwhile, mice given a low dose of the gene therapy lived longest. They regained muscle function and strength in both the forearms and the hind limbs and became more active.

In fact, some of them survived long enough to mate and produce offspring.

Initially, Shababi housed her SMARD1 mice in the same cage as their mothers so that the moms could intervene if the sick pups become too feeble to feed themselves. When the male pups became well, their moms became pregnant.

“That was another surprise,” Shababi said. “That was when I knew I had to separate them.”

Shababi marks a pup, only a few days old, with permanent marker so she can identify each mouse in her study. | photo by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC .

Shababi marks a pup, only a few days old, with permanent marker so each mouse in her study can be identified. | photo by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC .

In another twist, Shababi discovered that the route of injection also mattered.

To get the treatment across the blood-brain barrier and to the spinal cord, Shababi used a special type of injection that passes through the skull and the ventricles of the brain, and into the spine.

This was no easy task.

The newborn mice were no larger than a gummy bear. To perform the delicate work, Shababi — who has written a chapter in a gene delivery textbook about this procedure — had to craft special needles with tips fine enough for this injection. She added food coloring to the injection solution so she could tell when it had reached its intended destination.

“After half an hour, you will see it in the spinal cord,” Shababi said. “The blue line in the spine: that’s how you can monitor the accuracy of the injection.”

Unfortunately, repeated injections in the mice caused hydrocephaly, or swelling in the brain.

“They get a dome-shaped head,” Shababi explained.

The swelling happened in all three treatment groups, but most frequently in the group that received a high dose of viral gene therapy. This reinforced the finding that while a low dose was beneficial, a high dose was even more harmful than no treatment at all. It’s unclear why.

Christian Lorson is a professor of veterinary pathobiology at the Bond LSC. His research focuses on spinal muscular atrophy and more recently, SMARD1. | photo by Hannah Baldwin, Bond LSC .

Christian Lorson is a professor of veterinary pathobiology at the Bond LSC. His research focuses on spinal muscular atrophy and more recently, SMARD1. | photo by Hannah Baldwin, Bond LSC .

The Lorson lab plans to continue studying SMARD1 and this treatment, in particular, how changing the delivery routes for gene therapy can improve outcomes in treating SMARD1.

“It’s not as simple as replacing the gene,” Lorson said. “It comes down to the delivery.”

Injections in the brains of mice are meant to mimic spinal cord injections in humans, but intravenous delivery could be another option. However, intravenous injections, which travel through the blood stream and to the entire body, might cause off-target effects that could interfere with the effectiveness of the treatment.

Once researchers better understand how to optimize dosing and delivery on the cellular and organismal level, the therapy can move closer to clinical trials, Lorson said.

Even though gene therapy for SMARD1 is still in its early stages, he said he was optimistic that developing treatments for rare genetic diseases is no longer the impossible task it seemed even ten years ago.

Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a prime example of a recent success, Lorson pointed out. In the last six years, gene therapy for that disease has moved from the research lab to Phase I clinical trials.

“While it feels like a long time for any patient and their families,” Lorson reassured, “things are moving at a breakneck pace.”

 

The study, “Rescue of a Mouse Model of Spinal Muscular Atrophy With Respiratory Distress Type 1 by AAV9-IGHMBP2 Is Dose Dependent,” was published in Molecular Therapy, a journal published by Nature Publishing Group. This work was supported by a MU Research Board Grant (C.L.L.); MU College of Veterinary Medicine Faculty Research Grant (M.S.); the SMA Foundation (C.P.K.); National Institute of Health/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke grants; and the Missouri Spinal Cord Injury Research Program (M.L.G.).

Seminal work

How unruly data led MU scientists to discover a new microbiome
By Roger Meissen | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

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This seminal vesicle contains a newly-discovered microbiome in mice. Some of its bacteria, like P. acnes, could lead to higher occurrences of prostate cancer. | contributed by Cheryl Rosenfeld

It’s a strange place to call home, but seminal fluid offers the perfect environment for particular types of bacteria.

Researchers at MU’s Bond Life Sciences Center recently identified new bacteria that thrive here.

Cheryl Rosenfeld1.jpg “It’s a new microbiome that hasn’t been looked at before,” said Cheryl Rosenfeld, a Bond LSC investigator and corresponding author on the study. “Resident bacteria can help us or be harmful, but one we found called P. acnes is a very important from the standpoint of men. It can cause chronic prostatitis that results in prostate cancer. We’re speculating that the seminal vesicles could be a reservoir for this bacteria and when it spreads it can cause disease.”

Experiments published in Scientific Reportsa journal published by Nature — indicate these bacteria may start disease leading to prostate cancer in mice and could pass from father to offspring.


A place to call home

From the gut to the skin and everywhere in between, bacterial colonies can both help and hurt the animals or humans they live in.

Seminal fluid offers an attractive microbiome — a niche environment where specific bacteria flourish and impact their hosts. Not only is this component of semen chockfull of sugars that bacteria eat, it offers a warm, protected atmosphere.

“Imagine a pond where bacteria live — it’s wet it’s warm and there’s food there — that’s what this is, except it’s inside your body,” said Rosenfeld. “Depending on where they live, these bacteria can influence our cells, produce hormones that replicate our own hormones, but can also consume our sugars and metabolize them or even cause disease.”

Rosenfeld’s team wasn’t trying to find the perfect vacation spot for a family of bacteria. They initially wanted to know what bacteria in seminal fluid might mean for offspring of the mice they studied.

“We were looking at the epigenetic effects — the impact the father has on the offspring’s disease risk — but what we saw in the data led us to focus more on the effects this bacterium, P. acnes, has on the male itself,” Rosenfeld said. “We were thinking more about effect on offspring and female reproduction — we weren’t even considering the effect the bacteria that live in this fluid could have on the male — but this could be one of the more fascinating findings.”

But, how do you figure out what might live in this unique ecosystem and whether it’s harmful?

First, her team found a way to extract seminal fluid without contamination from potential bacteria in the urinary tract.

“We gowned up just like for surgery and we had to extract the fluid directly from the seminal vesicles to avoid contamination,” said Angela Javurek, primary author on the study and recent MU graduate. “You only have a certain amount of time to collect the fluid because it hardens like glue.”

Once they obtained these samples, they turned to a DNA approach, sequencing it using MU’s DNA Core.

They compared it to bacteria in fecal samples of the same mice to see if bacteria in seminal fluid were unique. They also compared samples from normal mice and ones where estrogen receptor genes were removed.


The difference in the data

It sounds daunting to sort and compare millions of DNA sequences, right? But, the right approach can make all the difference.

“A lot of it looks pretty boring, but bioinformatics allow us to decipher large amounts of data that can otherwise be almost incomprehensible,” said Scott Givan, the associate director of the Informatics Research Core Facility (IRCF) that specializes in complicated analysis of data. “Here we compared seminal fluid bacterial DNA samples to publicly available databases that come from other large experiments and found a few sequences that no one else has discovered or at least characterized, so we’re in completely new territory.”

The seminal microbiome continued to stand out when compared to mouse poop, revealing 593 unique bacteria.

One of the most important was P. acnes, a bacteria known to cause chronic prostatitis that can lead to prostate cancer in man and mouse. It was abundant in the seminal fluid, and even more so when estrogen receptor genes were present.

“We’re essentially doing a lot of counting, especially across treatments to see if particular bacteria species are more common than others,” said Bill Spollen, a lead bioinformatics analyst at the IRCF. “The premise is that the more abundant a species is, the more often we’ll see its DNA sequence and we can start making some inferences to how it could be influencing its environment.”

Although this discovery excites Rosenfeld, much is unknown about how this new microbiome might affect males and their offspring.

“We do have this bacteria that can affect the male mouse’s health, that of his partner and his offspring,” Rosenfeld said. “But we’ve been studying microbiology for a long time and we still find bacteria within our own bodies that nobody has seen before. That blows my mind.”

The study, “Discovery of a Novel Seminal Fluid Microbiome and Influence of Estrogen Receptor Alpha Genetic Status,” recently was published in Scientific Reports, a journal published by Nature.

 

Unmasking the unknown

Scientists explore genetic similarities between plants and mice

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University of Missouri PhD Candidate Daniel L. Leuchtman peers through an Arabidopsis plant. Leuchtman has been experimenting with replacing a gene in the plants immune system with a similar gene from mice. | Photograph by Justin L. Stewart/MU Bond Life Sciences Center

By Justin L. Stewart | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Almost two-thirds of what makes a human a human and a fly a fly are the same, according to the NIH genome research institute.

If recent research at the University of Missouri’s Bond Life Sciences Center is verified, we’ll soon see that plants and mice aren’t all that different, either.

Dan Leuchtman studies a gene in Arabidopsis plants called SRFR1, or “Surfer One.” SRFR1 regulates plant immune systems and tell them when they are infected with diseases or illnesses. Leuchtman studies this model plant as a Ph.D. candidate at MU, splitting time between the labs of Walter Gassmann and Mannie Liscum.

His research involves breeding Arabidopsis plants missing the SRFR1 gene and then replacing it with the MmSRFR1 gene.

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A series of Arabidopsis plants show the differences between the plants, from left, without SRFR1, with MmSRFR1 and with SRFR1. | Photograph by Justin L. Stewart/MU Bond Life Sciences Center

So, what is MmSRFR1? Leuchtman and company believe it’s the animal equivalent of SRFR1, though they aren’t fully aware of all of its’ functions.

“We’re actually one of the first groups to characterize it,” Leuchtman said.

Arabidopsis plants missing the SRFR1 gene struggle to grow at all, appearing vastly different from normal plants. Leuchtman says that a plant missing the SRFR1 gene is a mangled little ball of leaves curled in on itself. “It’s really strange looking.”

While his experiments haven’t created statuesque plants equal to those with natural SRFR1 genes present, the Arabidopsis plants with MmSRFR1 show a notable difference from those completely lacking SRFR1. Leuchtman says the plants with MmSRFR1 lie somewhere in between a normal plant and one lacking SRFR1.

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University of Missouri PhD Candidate Daniel L. Leuchtman poses for a portrait in a Bond Life Sciences Center greenhouse. Leuchtman has been experimenting with replacing a gene in Arabidopsis plants immune system with a similar gene from mice. | Photograph by Justin L. Stewart/MU Bond Life Sciences Center

“At its’ core, it’s more understanding fundamental biology. How do we work? How do organisms tick? How do you go from DNA in a little bag of salts to a walking, talking organism?” Leuchtman said. “The more you know about how an organism functions, the more opportunities you have to find something that makes an impact.”