Huntington’s disease is an inherited neurodegenerative disorder associated with mutations in the huntingtin gene on human chromosome 4. Although the functions of normal huntingtin protein are not entirely clear, it is known that abnormal huntingtin (mutantHtt, or mHtt) – and especially small proteolytic fragments of the protein – are toxic to neurons, particularly those in the striatum and cortex. Previous studies into the cleavage of huntingtin have focussed on the role of the cysteine protease families of caspases and calpains, but scientists at the Buck Institute for Age Research have now discovered that a metalloprotease also cleaves huntingtin into highly toxic fragments.
The team used a set of small interfering RNA (siRNA) pools targeting the 514 known and predicted human protease genes to identify those proteases involved in the cleavage of huntingtin. Eleven proteases were found to alter huntingtin fragment accumulation, and knockdown of the nine which are expressed in striatal cells significantly reduced huntingtin-mediated striatal cell death in a cellular toxicity screen. Amongst the proteases associated with huntingtin cleavage were three metalloproteases, MMP-10, MMP-14 and MMP-23B. Subsequent experiments showed that only MMP-10 directly cleaves huntingtin, suggesting that knockdown of MMP-10 reduces toxicity by directly altering proteolysis of huntingtin whereas knockdown of MMP-14 or MMP-23B modulates toxicity indirectly through proteolysis of cytokines or components of the extracellular matrix. Whilst matrix metalloproteases are generally thought to be secreted as proenzymes which are processed to the active forms extracellularly, MMP-10 was found to be activated inside the cell and to co-localise with huntingtin, suggesting that cleavage may occur intracellularly.
The study, which is published in the journal Neuron, suggests a role for matrix metalloproteases in the progression of Huntington’s disease and that development of inhibitors of MMP-10 may be a useful therapeutic strategy.