Background: Spinal muscular atrophy is (SMA) is a devastating, autosomal recessive neuromuscular disease resulting in muscle atrophy, neurodegeneration, and is the leading genetic cause of infant death. SMA arises when there are homozygous deletion mutations in the human SMN1 gene, leading to a decrease in corresponding SMN1 protein.
Objectives: Although SMN1 is expressed across multiple tissue types, much of the previous research into SMA focused on the neuronal aspect of the disease, overlooking many of the potential non-neuronal aspects of the disease. Therefore, we sought to address this gap in knowledge by modeling SMA in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans.
Results: We used a previously uncharacterized allele which resulted in the onset of mild SMA-like phenotypes allowing us to monitor the onset of phenotypes at different stages. We observed that these mutant animals recapitulated many key features of the human disease, and most importantly, we observed that muscle dysfunction precedes neurodegeneration. Furthermore, we tested the therapeutic efficacy of targeting endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress in non-neuronal cells and found it to be more effective than targeting ER stress in neuronal cells. We also found that the most potent therapeutic potential came from a combination of ER- and neuromuscular junction (NMJ)-targeting drugs.
Conclusion: Together, our results suggest an important non-neuronal component of SMA pathology and highlights new considerations for therapeutic intervention.