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by Monica Coenraads
As always at RSRT, our funded projects are aimed at developing effective treatments and a cure for Rett Syndrome. But one of the key roadblocks to achieving this has been a lack of knowledge about the MeCP2 protein and how it functions. In 2011 RSRT decided to conduct an experiment of our own. Take three world-class laboratories and give them the necessary financial resources ($5.5 million awarded to date) and infrastructure to tackle a question that no one yet has been able to answer: what does the MeCP2 protein do?
Almost four years later the labs of Gail Mandel (Oregon Health and Science University), Michael Greenberg (Harvard University), and Adrian Bird (University of Edinburgh) are getting closer to that answer and have made the following discoveries along the way— discoveries that could prove to be invaluable to how we will ultimately change the lives of girls and women afflicted with Rett:
- It was known that MeCP2 binds to DNA in brain cells, but the Consortium showed that MeCP2 has a binding partner, called NCOR, that is known to silence genes. Importantly, the Consortium showed that mutations that disrupt the ability of MeCP2 to bind to NCOR are associated with Rett in people, thus lending support for the essential nature of this interaction.
- MeCP2 is modulated by phosphorylation for normal nervous system function.
- The Consortium has shown that gene therapy can reverse symptoms in symptomatic female Rett mice. This work is being actively followed up by a dedicated “Gene Therapy Consortium” also funded by RSRT.
- As yet unpublished work is shedding light on the crucial question of which genes in the brain are controlled by MeCP2. It may be possible to target these genes via specific drugs.
Recently I posed a few questions to the three investigators about the important work they are tackling.
Despite much effort, there is little consensus among scientists regarding what MeCP2 actually does in the brain. Needless to say it helps greatly when fixing something to know exactly what has gone wrong, so this is an issue that badly needs addressing. Fortunately the research tools for getting at the problem have gotten much better over the past few years and we are now in a good position to nail this problem down.
It’s important to know why the loss of MeCP2 gives rise to Rett as well as helping to determine a minimally active form that might be better suited to gene replacement approaches.
It is hard for me to imagine a treatment for Rett that isn’t based on an understanding of MeCP2 function. Based on what we already know about MeCP2 it is clear that it’s function in neurons is quite complex and difficult to understand. That together with the complexity of the brain makes me think it is unlikely that a therapy that isn’t based on a deep understanding of MeCP2 function is likely to work. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t rule it out.
If we could correct the genetic changes that cause MeCP2 to dysfunction in Rett so that the defective gene is replaced by a healthy one, then we would not need to know how MeCP2 works. This ideal scenario is becoming less of a fantasy, but is still some ways from being a reality. Knowing precisely what pathways MeCP2 regulates offers the prospect of treating downstream effects of the mutation as an alternative to correcting the gene. It is too early to say at the moment which approach is more likely to bear fruit so it is important to try both.
I think investigators in other disciplines would love to have what we have built together. The Consortium is a wonderful stimulus for new ways of thinking critically about how to study and/or cure Rett. Two heads, or in this case three heads, are always better than one, particularly because we have different expertise and backgrounds. And we can build on each other’s discoveries much more quickly.
The Consortium is a new way of working that has benefited our lab’s work greatly. Being able to thrash out ideas and explore different ways of looking at Rett with top class scientists from different backgrounds has sharpened up everybody’s research. All the partners have fully committed to the Consortium idea and as a result no one feels inhibited about robustly questioning the others. This kind of free and frank exchange keeps us on our toes and always makes research better. As well as ideas and data, we share materials and equipment, which speeds up our work and reduces costs.
Science is usually built on a competitive model where PIs compete for funding and try to make and publish discoveries ahead of their peers. Sharing data and plans for experiments with people who were once competitors is a different way of working – but one that is also liberating. It requires trust and a recognition by everyone that a higher goal is at stake. This Consortium really works. Hopefully we are poised to advance our knowledge of MeCP2 in ways that will make a difference therapeutically.
It has been very rewarding. Nothing really has surprised me because I knew Adrian Bird and Mike Greenberg pretty well beforehand and I had ultimate confidence in the high quality of their science and their collegiality.
Participating in the Consortium and working collaboratively with the Mandel and Bird labs has been a wonderful experience. The rigor and pace of scientific progress is much greater with the three labs working together than would be possible if each lab were working alone. Monica has been essential to keeping the Consortium on target and helping make sure the scientists in the Consortium continue to work together effectively over time.
The lab members from the three labs have thoughts of their own about the MECP2 Consortium.
|Consortium Research Projects||Reflections on Meeting|
|Benyam Kinde, Caitlin Gilbert, William Renthal and myself have been studying how MECP2 functions when it is bound to DNA in neurons and how it might control the levels of many proteins important for the function of neurons in the brain. This exciting work may provide an answer to the long-standing question of exactly what goes wrong in individual neurons in the Rett Syndrome brain when MeCP2 is lost. I described recent results from experiments using cultured mouse neurons that lack MeCP2 to test whether drugs can correct the defects in these neurons. Promising results from these experiments suggest that a drug can at least partially correct these defects. We are now beginning to explore if this drug can improve symptoms in mice with Rett Syndrome by delivering the drug to the brain of these mice.||In general it is truly unprecedented to have three powerhouse labs that work on the mechanism of MeCP2 get together for a meeting and share their most recent data. The reality is that under any other circumstances we would be competing (hopefully in a congenial way!) and largely keeping secrets from one another until the data were published. This Consortium breaks down these walls and as a result the science moves much faster. I commend Adrian, Gail, and Mike for being willing to share so much, all of the lab members for trusting in the other Consortium members to treat them fairly, and most of all RSRT for creating such a unique and effective Consortium. Thanks!|
|At the meeting I spoke about experiments that provide insight into the mechanism of MeCP2-mediated gene regulation. Through a series of biochemical, genetic and genomic experiments, I described how DNA methylation, specifically occurring in the CA dinucleotide sequence context in neurons, serves as a critical site for MeCP2 binding and regulation of gene expression in the developing brain.||The Consortium has provided a unique opportunity to share novel findings, which ultimately has led to invaluable discussions that provide critical insight into the design and interpretation of experiments. In this way, the Consortium has allowed all three laboratories to develop projects at an exceedingly rapid pace.|
|Last year we published evidence for a model where the primary function of MeCP2 is to recruit the NCoR/SMRT co-repressor complex to chromatin.
At the last Consortium meeting I presented work aimed at further testing this hypothesis, and also investigating which components of this complex are most relevant to Rett Syndrome.
|Sharing current data between labs means we all receive input from people in the field but outside of our own labs at a much earlier stage than would normally happen.|
|MeCP2 is classically described as a methyl DNA binding protein exerting its function by exclusively binding to methylated CpG dinucleotides. It became obvious in recent years that MeCP2 can not only bind to methyl CpG dinucleotides but has been suggested to bind to other forms of modified DNA in in vitro experiments broadening its DNA binding sites. My work aims at establishing in vivo models to analyze MeCP2 binding patterns in brain cells. I therefore sort neuronal and glial cells from mouse brain and subject them to DNA methylation analysis to the single base pair resolution level. I can then overlay these maps with MECP2 binding profiles and identify the true in vivo MeCP2 targets. This analysis will help us to understand how MeCP2 is acting on chromatin and what the necessary signal for its binding are.||I was invited to the RSRT Consortium meetings in Boston twice and both times I could not wait to get back to the lab and start working again. The possibility to present and discuss my work with like- minded and enthusiastic experts on MeCP2 is extremely beneficial and made me look at scientific problems from different angles. Meeting Rett Syndrome patients’ parents was very interesting for me and made me realize even more how important it is to keep working on understanding this devastating disease and to ultimately find a cure.|
|The MeCP2 protein acts by interacting with DNA at many locations inside cells. It is not clear however exactly what DNA sequences MeCP2 binds to on chromosomes. My work aims to identify what these sequences are.
My hope is that understanding how the protein works in greater detail will aid the design of an effective therapeutic strategy.
|I was really pleased to be able to attend the recent MeCP2 Consortium meeting in Boston as it was really nice to meet and talk to the parents of children with Rett syndrome and discuss my work with them and the other scientists present. When in Boston I found that other members of the Consortium had, reassuringly, reached similar conclusions and this gave me the impetus to continue my particular avenue of investigation.|
|I talked about a series of experiments on understanding the role of DNA methylation patterning in the brain. DNA methylation is a chemical modification of DNA that is abundant in neurons, and regulates MeCP2 function. Understanding the molecular mechanisms of DNA methylation in regulating MeCP2 is important to understand how MeCP2 works.||It was great getting to know what other laboratories were up to, and I think the meeting has increased my understanding on MeCP2 a step further.|
|Many of the mutations in MeCP2, which cause Rett Syndrome are single nucleotide changes known as point mutations. Our goal is to harness the catalytic activity of an enzyme already found in cells to target and correct these mutations in MeCP2 RNA. We have been able to edit MeCP2 RNA in vitro and are working towards testing our strategy in a mouse containing a point mutation, which has been identified in several Rett patients.||Attending the RSRT Consortium meetings is a wonderful experience. There is a collaborative atmosphere you do not see at large scientific meetings and everyone is focused on understanding the biology of MeCP2 so that we can understand Rett Syndrome. For me personally, it is very powerful to meet parents of girls with Rett and to talk to them about my research. It provides a reminder of what I am working towards and I think gives the families an opportunity to talk one on one with the scientists they support.|
|My project involves modeling Rett – causing mutations in human neurons. Model systems are a great way to elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind diseases and to understand how a protein works in a cellular context. I really hope these human neurons will help us to understand the details involved in Rett, they may even provide a useful tool for testing gene therapy ideas in!||Being part of the Consortium meeting gave me the opportunity to meet neuroscientists and gain advice and ideas from them on how to improve my project and my research. The flexibility to present my project in detail to an experienced audience without fear of my project being torn apart is a great thing. It provides the freedom for open chat and encouragement and an exchange of thoughts and ideas in a positive manner, rather than having a competitive undertone to the day. This is the environment that is needed in scientific research to encourage advances in knowledge. It allows for collaboration in a productive manner, for example as a result of the Consortium, I now have a list of genes whose expression I should look into from one of the other attending labs. If it weren’t for the Consortium I doubt information like this would be shared among labs in such an open manner.|
|Using information we have about the MECP2 mutations found in girls with Rett we have been able to identify two important regions of the protein: the region that binds to methylated DNA (MBD) and a small region which binds to a repressor complex, NCoR/SMRT. I am producing a number of different mutations in mouse embryonic stem cells in order to investigate why they cause Rett Syndrome. This may lead to a better understanding of the function and/or structure of MeCP2.||I enjoyed hearing about the work of the other two groups in the Consortium. Each group has its own particular view of what MeCP2 is doing and I found it refreshing to think about things from a slightly different angle.|
|Missense mutations that cause Rett are almost all located in either the region of MeCP2 protein that binds to methylated DNA or the region that interacts with the NCoR/SMRT repressor complex. This suggests that the function of MeCP2 is to form a ‘bridge’ between chromatin and the repressor proteins, and loss of this bridge results in brain dysfunction in Rett. I am testing this hypothesis by manipulating the MeCP2 gene in mice, and then carrying out behavioral tests to determine whether they exhibit the symptoms observed in the mouse models of Rett.||The RSRT Consortium was a great opportunity for me to meet other scientists in the field, to learn about and discuss their work, and to get valuable input on my own project. The informality and openness of the discussion made it a thoroughly rewarding and stimulating experience.|
|Rett Syndrome severity varies partly because of the nature of the MECP2 mutation. My project focuses on making animal models of “milder” mutations to see if there are specific functions of MeCP2 that these mutations affect.||The Consortium provides a unique opportunity to communicate findings within a group of expert researchers as well as to forge collaborations. I enjoyed being able to appreciate others’ perspectives on the same clinical and biological problem and seeing how this can result in advances in the MeCP2 field.|
|I am working on MeCP2 duplication syndrome. I am trying to understand what happens if you do have too much MeCP2 and what we can do to counteract the symptoms caused by excess MeCP2.||The Consortium meeting in October was the first one I’ve attended. I’ve found it incredibly helpful to be able to talk to other scientists who work on the same gene, to learn about novel findings of others that will impact my research and also to get input from experts into the work I’m doing.|
|I am interested in examining the ultrastructural changes underlying the altered cellular morphology and synaptic connections of a mouse model of Rett Syndrome.||I enjoy our lively, intellectual discussions at the Consortium meetings where we all share a common goal of gaining a deeper understanding of MeCP2. The Consortium meetings are wonderful opportunities to reflect on preliminary data and to share helpful reagents and insights for our experiments.|
|My work in the Bird Lab focuses on the production and analyses of genetically modified animal models of Rett. These models have proved invaluable to Rett research over the years and the novel models continue to increase our understanding of MeCP2 function and the underlying molecular basis of Rett. I am also committed to using these Rett models to investigate potential therapeutic strategies.||Although I never actually presented any of my research in person at the last meeting I was still able to benefit hugely by attending. The Consortium meetings and in particular the relaxed, open and friendly format provide a great focus for Rett researchers. It gives us a perfect opportunity to have our work critically assessed by experts in the field, even in the early stages of a project. This often affords us extra insight that we might not get from the sometimes insular environment of our own individual groups.
I look forward to being part of many more meetings!
|Rett is characterized by profound synaptic dysfunction. I am studying the role MeCP2 plays in coordinating the gene programs responsible for normal synaptic responses to neuronal activity. Specifically, our laboratory has found that neuronal activity drives the rapid phosphorylation of MeCP2 at serine 86, so my current efforts are aimed at identifying the functional significance of this event.||I think the Consortium was a fantastic opportunity to share ideas with people from a variety of backgrounds to accelerate Rett research. We were having technical difficulties with some of our experiments and the collective wisdom of the Consortium has been crucial for overcoming them.|
|The aim of my project is to define primary transcriptional consequences of MeCP2 depletion. In order to do that I use an in vitro system based on immortalized human neural precursors which can be differentiated into dopaminergic neurons. I generated cells with reduced amount of MeCP2, entirely depleted MeCP2 and increased levels of MeCP2. Gene expression changes in these cells with different levels of MeCP2 will be studied additionally in the context of gene body methylation and hydroxymethylation to provide the molecular basis of MeCP2 function.||I think the Consortium meetings are great. The informal nature is very beneficial. I had brilliant opportunity to discuss my work with people working on the same problem. I could also ask questions more openly and know what other people are doing.|
by Monica Coenraads
I am delighted to give you a brief update on the MECP2 Gene Therapy Consortium, the collaboration of four elite labs that RSRT launched earlier this year. As you know, the Consortium is charged with developing gene therapy techniques that could treat or significantly reverse the symptoms of Rett. Our goal is to get to clinical trials. The project is grounded in work done last year by Consortium members Gail Mandel and Brian Kaspar that showed for the first time reversal of Rett symptoms in mice using gene therapy techniques that have the potential to be used in humans. The reversal of symptoms in mice was quite remarkable, but there are many challenges to translating that to a reversal in girls and women with Rett. The Consortium is attacking these challenges head on.
Earlier this month members of the Consortium met in the boardroom of a JFK Airport hotel in New York (we did not want to waste any of our meeting time traveling to and from a hotel in Manhattan). In addition to Gail Mandel, other members of the Consortium are Stuart Cobb (University of Glasgow), Steven Gray (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), and Brian Kaspar (Nationwide Children’s Hospital). The Consortium has a timeline of 3 years and a budget of $1.5 million. RSRT hosts in-person Consortium meetings twice a year as well as regularly scheduled conference calls.
The advantages gained by labs working collaboratively are clear: speed (four labs contributing to the work that has to be done), real time sharing of information means more brainpower and broader perspectives for problem solving. This is an obvious example of more heads are better than one.
Three facts make Rett Syndrome an attractive disease for gene therapy: it is monogenic; it is remarkably reversible in animal models; delivering MECP2 does not require understanding its function.
There are several hurdles to overcome. There is a requirement for MECP2 in every part of the brain so the gene will need to be broadly delivered. Also, the MECP2 Duplication Syndrome suggests that too much MECP2 is bad. It is difficult in gene therapy to regulate how many copies of a gene enter a cell and how much protein is made so the issue of MECP2 dosage must be carefully explored. We know that having too much MECP2 from conception and through early development causes serious symptoms. But does the same hold true if extra MECP2 is delivered later in life? Also, is it possible that females tolerate greater amounts of this protein than males? These questions must be answered before a clinical trial can be proposed.
Consortium members are also working on the following key issues:
1) Vector optimization – The vector is the Trojan horse that delivers the gene into a cell. There are many types of vectors in use and many more under development. For Rett we need a vector that can get into the brain and spread efficiently throughout the organ. The delivery route will affect the vector of choice. For example, if you deliver intravenously (via the blood stream) there is concern that a large amount of vector will end up in the liver potentially causing toxicity. To get around this problem a vector that de-targets the liver would be very useful. If dosage of MECP2 turns out to be problematic vectors that can be turned off will be required.
2) MEPC2 optimization – There are limits to the amount of DNA that can be packaged into a vector. The entire MECP2 gene does not fit. Scientists therefore have to select the parts of the gene they think are the most important. In essence they need to design a “mini-MECP2 gene’. Similar “mini-gene” work is also underway in the lab of Adrian Bird and will be shared with the Consortium.
3) Delivery route optimization – Gene therapy can be delivered via the blood stream, intrathecally into the spinal cord (like an epidural), or directly to the brain. Each route has its own advantages and disadvantages.
4) Optimizing how much gene therapy to deliver – the scientists are delivering low, medium and high dosages in an attempt to see how much is needed to get a therapeutic effect without generating toxic side effects.
We thank our precious donors who make this critical research possible!
In Their Own Words
It is very stimulating to be part of such a focused group of experts on gene therapy approaches towards Rett. The previous studies that we performed in collaboration with the Kaspar group were promising in showing that expression of a good copy of MeCP2, delivered systemically with AAV9, ameliorated Rett-like symptoms in female mice and prolonged survival significantly in affected males. Most surprisingly, but importantly, although we did not achieve a large amount of expression of the good MeCP2 in brains of the treated mice, we still saw behavioral benefits. We are now trying to improve the expression level of delivered MeCP2 by redesigning the vector, according to ideas and experimental results presented at the Consortium meetings. The openness of the investigators propels our studies and makes for a productive venture that would not be possible by any one individual laboratory. Additionally, it saves time because we can move on from doing obvious experiments that were done already in another laboratory. Finally, for those crucial experiments that had positive results, we have the ability to reproduce them in a different laboratory to insure that the results are solid.
– Gail Mandel
The Kaspar Laboratory is extremely excited about the potential to deliver gene therapies to the CNS. We are encouraged with our delivery studies to target cells efficiently in the brain, where one requires the proper expression of MECP2. Furthermore, our clinical trial in Spinal Muscular Atrophy has to date demonstrated the safety of this gene therapeutic in children which is excellent news for development of gene therapeutics in diseases, such as Rett. As a laboratory, we have bolstered our Rett efforts and are making great progress in testing the safety and developing the pre-clinical data necessary for developing a treatment. Our approach is building off the success of our collaboration with Dr. Gail Mandel. We are thankful for her continued support on our steep learning curve of Rett. This Consortium allows us to learn from each other’s studies. It’s a great group of scientists and I’m privileged to be a part of it. I see the progress we are collectively making and the commitment to the development of a therapy for Rett patients. The path is starting to look much clearer to get there.
– Brian Kaspar
The Cobb lab shares Brian’s excitement about the consortium’s efforts and the potential for gene therapy to counteract the root cause of Rett Syndrome. The project is progressing on multiple fronts from vector design/optimization to assessing best delivery methods and testing for efficacy and safety. Whilst the concept of gene therapy is a very simple one, the route to developing a safe and effective therapy is not at all straightforward. A key element of the consortium is that it enables us to share ideas and to discuss and act on emerging results from the four labs in real time. This will inevitably lead to more rapid progress in addressing the various challenges. As well as coordinating efforts, the consortium also enables us to cross validate key experiments to ensure findings are robust and reproducible across laboratories. After our Consortium meeting Kamal and I traveled to visit Steve Gray’s lab at UNC Chapel Hill. It was an extremely valuable few days as we were able to not only observe but also practice various delivery route methods. We also were able to compare and standardize how we score neurological features seen in the mice. Spending time together also provided an opportunity to further discuss vector development. Our trip to the US for both the Consortium meeting and visit to UNC was very productive.
– Stuart Cobb
Our efforts to treat Rett syndrome are built on 7 years of experience with the Rett community along with “bench to bedside” approaches that we are taking for six other inherited diseases. Our gene therapy clinical trial for Giant Axonal Neuropathy laid an important foundation for a similar approach to be taken with Rett syndrome. Gene therapy for Rett is an enormous challenge, but the last few years have garnered a great deal of excitement based on the similar positive findings published by all 4 laboratories in this consortium in 2 seminal papers. We are excited to be part of this group, and together we can accomplish much more than my lab alone. When Dr. Cobb visited our lab recently he provided critical expertise in a short visit that saved us an enormous amount of time and effort if we had been working alone. This is a small example of the many benefits we have had from working together in a collaborative fashion.
– Steve Gray