An intronic GGGGCC (G4C2) hexanucleotide repeat expansion (HRE) in the C9ORF72 gene is the most common cause of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD), referred to as C9ALS/FTD. No cure or effective treatment exist for C9ALS/FTD. Three major molecular mechanisms have emerged to explain C9ALS/FTD disease mechanisms: (1) C9ORF72 loss-of-function through haploinsufficiency, (2) dipeptide repeat (DPR) proteins mediated toxicity by the translation of the repeat RNAs, and more controversial, (3) RNA-mediated toxicity by bidirectional transcription of the repeats that form intranuclear RNA foci. Recent studies indicate a double-hit pathogenic mechanism in C9ALS/FTD, where reduced C9ORF72 protein levels lead to impaired clearance of toxic DPRs. Here we explored whether pharmacological compounds can revert these pathological hallmarks in vitro and cognitive impairment in a C9ALS/FTD mouse model (C9BAC). We specifically focused our study on small molecule inhibitors targeting chromatin-regulating proteins (epidrugs) with the goal of increasing C9ORF72 gene expression and reduce toxic DPRs.
We generated luciferase reporter cell lines containing 10 (control) or ≥ 90 (mutant) G4C2 HRE located between exon 1a and 1b of the human C9ORF72 gene. In a screen of 14 different epidrugs targeting bromodomains, chromodomains and histone-modifying enzymes, we found that several bromodomain and extra-terminal domain (BET) inhibitors (BETi), including PFI-1 and JQ1, increased luciferase reporter activity. Using primary cortical cultures from C9BAC mice, we further found that PFI-1 treatment increased the expression of V1-V3 transcripts of the human mutant C9ORF72 gene, reduced poly(GP)-DPR inclusions but enhanced intranuclear RNA foci. We also tested whether JQ1, an BETi previously shown to reach the mouse brain by intraperitoneal (i.p.) injection, can revert behavioral abnormalities in C9BAC mice. Interestingly, it was found that JQ1 administration (daily i.p. administration for 7 days) rescued hippocampal-dependent cognitive deficits in C9BAC mice.
Our findings place BET bromodomain inhibitors as a potential therapy for C9ALS/FTD by ameliorating C9ORF72-associated pathological and behavioral abnormalities. Our finding that PFI-1 increases accumulation of intranuclear RNA foci is in agreement with recent data in flies suggesting that nuclear RNA foci can be neuroprotective by sequestering repeat transcripts that result in toxic DPRs.