Aims/hypothesis: Wolfram syndrome is an autosomal recessive disorder characterised by childhood diabetes mellitus, optic atrophy and severe neurodegeneration, resulting in premature death. The aim of this study was to investigate the mechanisms responsible for the phenotype of carbohydrate intolerance and loss of pancreatic beta cells in this disorder.
Materials and methods: To study the role of the Wolfram gene (Wfs1) in beta cells, we developed a mouse model with conditional deletion of Wfs1 in beta cells by crossing floxed Wfs1 exon 8 animals with mice expressing Cre recombinase under the control of a rat insulin promoter (RIP2-Cre). Complementary experiments using RNA interference of Wfs1 expression were performed in mouse insulinoma (MIN6) cell lines (WfsKD).
Results: Male knockout mice (betaWfs(-/-)) began developing variable and progressive glucose intolerance and concomitant insulin deficiency, compared with littermate controls, by 12 weeks of age. Analysis of islets from betaWfs(-/-) mice revealed a reduction in beta cell mass, enhanced apoptosis, elevation of a marker of endoplasmic reticulum stress (immunoglobulin heavy chain-binding protein [BiP]), and dilated endoplasmic reticulum with decreased secretory granules by electron microscopy. WfsKD cell lines had significantly increased apoptosis and elevated expression of the genes encoding BiP and C/EBP-homologous protein (CHOP), two markers of endoplasmic reticulum stress.
Conclusions/interpretation: These results indicate that (1) lack of expression of Wfs1 in beta cells was sufficient to result in the diabetes mellitus phenotype; (2) beta cell death occurred by an accelerated process of apoptosis; and (3) lack of Wfs1 was associated with dilated endoplasmic reticulum and increased markers of endoplasmic reticulum stress, which appears to be a significant contributor to the reduction in beta cell survival.