Clinical Evidence for Variegated Silencing in Patients With Friedreich Ataxia

Background and Objectives

Friedreich ataxia (FRDA) is a neurodegenerative disease caused by a GAA triplet repeat (GAA-TR) expansion in intron 1 of the FXN gene. Patients have 100–1,300 GAA triplets compared with less than 30 in healthy controls. The GAA-TR expansion leads to FXN silencing, and consequent frataxin protein deficiency results in progressive ataxia, scoliosis, cardiomyopathy, and diabetes. The overt heterogeneity in age at onset and disease severity is explained partly by the length of the GAA-TR, in which shorter repeats correlate with milder disease. Evidence of variegated silencing in FRDA suggests that patients with shorter repeats retain a significant proportion of cells with FXN genes that have escaped GAA-TR expansion–induced silencing, explaining the less severe frataxin deficiency in this subpopulation. In ex vivo experiments, the proportion of spared cells negatively correlates with GAA-TR length until it plateaus at 500 triplets, an indication that the maximal number of silenced cells has been reached. In this study, we assessed whether an analogous ceiling effect occurs in severity of clinical features of FRDA by analyzing clinical outcome data.

Methods

The FRDA Clinical Outcome Measures Study database was used for a cross-sectional analysis of 1,000 patients with FRDA. Frataxin levels were determined by lateral flow immunoassays.

Results

The length of the GAA-TR in our cohort predicted frataxin level (R2 = 0.38, p < 0.0001) and age at onset (R2 = 0.46, p 700 GAA triplets. The prevalence of cardiomyopathy and scoliosis increased as GAA-TR length increased up to 700 GAA triplets where prevalence plateaued.

Discussion

Our data suggest that there is a ceiling effect on the clinical consequences of GAA-TR length in FRDA, as would be predicted by variegated silencing. Patients with GAA-TRs of >700 triplets represent a subgroup in which the severity of clinical manifestations based on GAA-TR length have reached maximal levels and therefore display limited clinical variability in disease progression.

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