Investigating novel therapeutic approaches and targets to prevent synapse degeneration
Amorim, Ines Da Silva
Neurodegenerative diseases are associated with extensive physical and mental debilitation, significant costs to the healthcare system, as well as great emotional and financial burden to the patients, their families and care providers. Despite progress in our understanding of the mechanisms behind neurodegenerative diseases, the vast majority are still currently untreatable. Synapses are important pathological targets in a range of disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and lysosomal storage disorders, such as Batten disease. Loss of synaptic connections and impairments in synaptic function are present in the initial stages of neurodegenerative conditions and throughout the course of disease progression. Therefore, synaptoprotective strategies are regarded as a potentially key factor in the development of effective therapies aimed at preventing or halting neurodegeneration. Despite the continuously growing body of research elucidating the molecular mechanisms that modulate synaptic function and vulnerability, the contribution of these pathways to neurodegenerative diseases is far from fully characterized. In addition, there are frequent issues regarding the applicability of the research performed using in vitro and small animal models of disease to develop therapeutic strategies for use in human patients. In the work described in this thesis, we initially validated the involvement of a selection of key synaptic targets, previously identified as regulators of synaptic degeneration in lower animal models, including mice and Drosophila, in a large animal model of neurodegenerative disease: CLN5 Batten sheep. Subsequently, we explored two of these individual synaptic protein targets in more detail (calretinin and α-synuclein), to further investigate their contribution to synaptic function and stability. Calretinin is a poorly characterized protein, primarily known for its calcium buffering capacities and high levels of expression in a subpopulation of interneurons. In this work, we show calretinin is expressed in previously unreported cell populations, including motor axons and synapses from the peripheral nervous system, and that it is enriched in synapses in vitro. Furthermore, we show calretinin responds dynamically to synaptic activity and is directly involved in neurodegenerative pathways, as demonstrated by its ability to influence the course of Wallerian degeneration and apoptotic cell death. α-synuclein plays a central role in the pathophysiology of Parkinson’s disease and contributes to the maintenance of synaptic transmission and mitochondrial function. However, questions still remain about how to effectively manipulate α- synuclein to obtain therapeutic benefits. Therefore, we sought to explore downstream targets of α-synuclein in order to uncover new pathways through which this protein may influence synaptic stability. Using proteomics on mice lacking α-synuclein and in vitro cell systems we identified sideroflexin 3 (sfxn3). We show sfxn3 is localized at the inner mitochondrial membrane and that it functions outside the main canonical pathways of mitochondria energy production. In addition, overexpression of sfxn3 in Drosophila led to a significant loss of synaptic boutons at the level of the neuromuscular junction, suggesting regulated levels of sfxn3 are important for the maintenance of synaptic connections. Altogether, the work developed in this thesis provides novel insights into pathways regulating synaptic stability and function. We not only provide evidence that the molecular targets studied are affected in a large animal model of neurodegenerative disease, and are therefore likely to be relevant to studies in human conditions, but we also uncover two new molecular targets capable of independently regulating synaptic form and function.