Purpose of review: Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is an autosomal recessive neuromuscular disorder caused by mutations in the survival motor neuron (SMN1) gene, affecting approximately 1 in 10,000 live births. Even though a specific therapy for SMA is not currently available, a newborn screening test may allow the child to be enrolled in a clinical trial before irreversible neuronal loss occurs and enable patients to obtain more proactive treatments. Until an effective treatment is found to cure or arrest the progression of the disease, prevention of new cases through carrier detection and prenatal diagnosis becomes extremely important.
Recent findings: The correlation between the SMA phenotype and the SMN2 copy number and the demonstration that sufficient SMN protein from SMN2 in transgenic mice can ameliorate the disease has made the SMN2 gene an obvious target that is being modulated in current therapeutic trials. Most recent work, utilizing gene therapy, has also shown a rescue of the phenotype in the mouse model. Since SMA children are often asymptomatic at birth, newborn screening is a means which will allow the implementation of the most early intervention to take place, before the irreversible loss of motor neurons. Since there is no effective cure for SMA presently, prevention through the identification of carriers becomes an important alternative and has recently been initiated.
Summary: Treatment and prevention of SMA are complementary responses to the scourge presented by SMA. This review first describes the molecular genetics of SMA and then focuses on newborn screening, as a means of ensuring the earliest intervention, and the prevention through population carrier screening.