To define the role of caspases and caspase cleavage of htt in the pathogenesis of HD

Research has identified a genetic defect in the HD gene that causes Huntington’s disease, a devastating and ultimately fatal neuropsychiatric disease. Symptoms include progressive deterioration in the ability to control movements and emotions, recall recent events or make decisions, and leads to death 15 to 20 years after onset. One in 10,000 Canadians has HD. There is neither a cure nor treatments to prevent Huntington disease. Several years ago Dr. Hayden and his team discovered that huntingtin, the protein involved in Huntington disease (HD), is cleaved by ‘molecular scissors’ which are proteins called caspases. This discovery led to the hypothesis that cleavage of huntingtin may play a key role in causing HD. To explore the role of huntingtin cleavage in the disease process, we established an animal model of HD that replicated the key disease features seen in patients. A unique aspect of this particular animal model is that it embodied the human HD gene in exactly the same way seen in patients. This replication allowed researchers to examine the progression of HD symptoms including the inevitable cleavage of the mutant huntingtin protein. Dr. Rona Graham is continuing her earlier MSFHR-funded research into understanding the reason why the mutant form of the HD gene causes death of particular neurons in the brain. Her Masters and PhD work demonstrated that preventing cleavage of the mutant huntingtin protein responsible for HD in a mouse model, the degenerative symptoms underlying the illness do not appear and the mouse displays normal brain function. Dr. Graham’s goal now is to investigate the role of caspase activation and the caspase-6 cleaved huntingtin fragment in the disease process. Since a similar splitting of disease proteins is involved in many other central nervous system diseases including Alzheimer’s and Spinocerebellar ataxia (which causes progressive deterioration in hand, speech and eye movement) Dr. Graham hopes the findings will lead to new treatments for other neurological disorders as well as HD.