Purpose of review: The molecular mechanisms that underlie chromosome 9 open reading frame 72 (C9orf72)-associated amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia are rapidly emerging. Two potential disease mechanisms have been postulated - gain or loss of function. We provide an overview of recent advances that support or oppose gain-of-function and loss-of-function mechanisms.
Recent findings: Since the discovery that a noncoding repeat expansion in C9orf72 was responsible for chromosome 9-linked amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia in 2011, a plethora of studies have investigated clinical, pathological and mechanistic aspects of the disease. Loss of function is supported by reduced levels of C9orf72 in patient brain and functional work, revealing a role of the C9orf72 protein in endocytic and autophagic pathways and motor function. Gain of function is supported by the presence in patient brain of both repeat RNA and protein aggregates. Repeat RNA aggregates termed RNA foci, a hallmark of noncoding repeat expansion diseases, have been shown to sequester proteins involved in RNA splicing, editing, nuclear export and nucleolar function. Repeat-associated non-ATG dependent translation gives rise to toxic dipeptide repeat proteins that form inclusions in patient tissue. Antisense oligonucleotides targeting C9orf72 have shown promise for combating gain-of-function toxicity.
Summary: Rapid progress is being made towards understanding this common genetic cause of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia. Overall, the weight of data currently sits in favour of gain of function as the most important disease mechanism, which has important implications for the development of effective and targeted therapies.