In Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), dystrophin mutation leads to progressive lethal skeletal muscle degeneration. For unknown reasons, dystrophin deficiency does not recapitulate DMD in mice (mdx), which have mild skeletal muscle defects and potent regenerative capacity. We postulated that human DMD progression is a consequence of loss of functional muscle stem cells (MuSC), and the mild mouse mdx phenotype results from greater MuSC reserve fueled by longer telomeres. We report that mdx mice lacking the RNA component of telomerase (mdx/mTR) have shortened telomeres in muscle cells and severe muscular dystrophy that progressively worsens with age. Muscle wasting severity parallels a decline in MuSC regenerative capacity and is ameliorated histologically by transplantation of wild-type MuSC. These data show that DMD progression results, in part, from a cell-autonomous failure of MuSC to maintain the damage-repair cycle initiated by dystrophin deficiency. The essential role of MuSC function has therapeutic implications for DMD.
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