Molecular Mechanisms and Potential Therapeutical Targets in Huntington's Disease

Chiara Zuccato, Marta Valenza, Elena Cattaneo


Huntington's disease (HD) is a neurodegenerative disorder caused by a CAG repeat expansion in the gene encoding for huntingtin protein. A lot has been learned about this disease since its first description in 1872 and the identification of its causative gene and mutation in 1993. We now know that the disease is characterized by several molecular and cellular abnormalities whose precise timing and relative roles in pathogenesis have yet to be understood. HD is triggered by the mutant protein, and both gain-of-function (of the mutant protein) and loss-of-function (of the normal protein) mechanisms are involved. Here we review the data that describe the emergence of the ancient huntingtin gene and of the polyglutamine trait during the last 800 million years of evolution. We focus on the known functions of wild-type huntingtin that are fundamental for the survival and functioning of the brain neurons that predominantly degenerate in HD. We summarize data indicating how the loss of these beneficial activities reduces the ability of these neurons to survive. We also review the different mechanisms by which the mutation in huntingtin causes toxicity. This may arise both from cell-autonomous processes and dysfunction of neuronal circuitries. We then focus on novel therapeutical targets and pathways and on the attractive option to counteract HD at its primary source, i.e., by blocking the production of the mutant protein. Strategies and technologies used to screen for candidate HD biomarkers and their potential application are presented. Furthermore, we discuss the opportunities offered by intracerebral cell transplantation and the likely need for these multiple routes into therapies to converge at some point as, ideally, one would wish to stop the disease process and, at the same time, possibly replace the damaged neurons.

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