Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is the leading genetic cause of infant death in the U.S. This devastating disease affects 1 child in every 6,000-10,000 live births, with a North American prevalence of approximately 14,000 individuals. The disease is characterized by the death of spinal cord cells called motor neurons that connect the brain to muscle. Death of these cells causes muscle weakness and atrophy, which progresses to paralysis, respiratory failure and frequently death. The three different types of SMA differ in severity and prognosis, with Type I being the most severe. SMA is caused by a genetic defect that leads to reduced levels of a single protein called SMN. There are currently no approved therapies for the disease.
Existing treatments for SMA consist of supportive care for the respiratory and nutritional deficits, for example ventilation and feeding tubes. Previous attempts to develop drugs using conventional technologies, such as cultured cancer cells or cells derived from animals have been unsuccessful. These failures are likely due to the fact that previous attempts used cell types that do not reflect the disease or are not affected by low levels of the SMN protein. Our approach uses patient-derived motor neurons, the specific cell type that dies in SMA.
An added advantage to our approach is that we can test our drug candidates in motor neurons from many different patients and different disease subtypes. We have generated iPSCs from many patients with SMA and we will test compounds for effectiveness against this cohort. These studies will give us an indication of the effectiveness of our compounds across patients before moving into costly and lengthy clinical trials. It will increase the amount of SMN protein and prevent motor neuron death. Halting the death of spinal cord motor neurons prevents the progressive weakness and muscle atrophy. We anticipate that this would prevent disability in Type III patients. For Type I and II patients, we believe such a therapy would mitigate respiratory and feeding challenges and allow an increase in lifespan.
In the past year, we conducted drug discovery experiments using these motor neurons to find potential therapeutics that increase the levels of the SMN protein in these diseased cells. Induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology allows us to take skin cells from patients with SMA, grow them in a dish, and turn them into SMA motor neurons. We conducted high-throughput screens of potential drugs with these cells to identify drug candidates that increase SMN protein levels in motor neurons derived from SMA patients. Despite the high quality of these screens, no suitable drug candidate was identified. We have modified our strategy and developed a method to identify, in parallel, all targets in the “druggable” genome that regulate SMN protein levels. An exhaustive screen currently is being performed to identify such a target and will be completed by end April 2012. Once a target is identified, it will be developed into a lead and validated in animals.