Autophagy regulates the processing of amino terminal huntingtin fragments

Hum Mol Genet. 2003 Dec 15;12(24):3231-44. doi: 10.1093/hmg/ddg346. Epub 2003 Oct 21.


The N-terminus of mutant huntingtin (htt) has a polyglutamine expansion and forms neuronal aggregates in the brain of Huntington's disease (HD) patients. Htt expression in vitro activates autophagy, but it is unclear whether autophagic/lysosomal pathways process htt, especially N-terminal htt fragments. We explored the role of autophagy in htt processing in three cell lines, clonal striatal cells, PC12 cells and rodent embryonic cells lacking cathepsin D. Blocking autophagy raised levels of exogenously expressed htt1-287 or 1-969, reduced cell viability and increased the number of cells bearing mutant htt aggregates. Stimulating autophagy promoted htt degradation, including breakdown of caspase cleaved N-terminal htt fragments. Htt expression increased levels of the lysosomal enzyme cathepsin D by an autophagy-dependent pathway. Cells without cathepsin D accumulated more N-terminal htt fragments and cells with cathepsin D were more efficient in degrading wt htt than mutant htt in vitro. These results suggest that autophagy plays a critical role in the degradation of N-terminal htt. Altered processing of mutant htt by autophagy and cathepsin D may contribute to HD pathogenesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autophagy / physiology*
  • Cathepsin D / metabolism
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Culture Media
  • Humans
  • Huntingtin Protein
  • Huntington Disease / metabolism*
  • Mice
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / chemistry
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / metabolism*
  • Nuclear Proteins / chemistry
  • Nuclear Proteins / metabolism*


  • Culture Media
  • HTT protein, human
  • Htt protein, mouse
  • Huntingtin Protein
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins
  • Nuclear Proteins
  • Cathepsin D