Background: Inherited diseases caused by unstable repeated DNA sequences are rare, but together represent a substantial cause of morbidity. Trinucleotide repeat disorders are severe, usually life-shortening, neurological disorders caused by nucleotide expansions, and most have no disease-modifying treatments. Longer repeat expansions are associated with genetic anticipation (ie, earlier disease onset in successive generations), although the differences in age at onset are not entirely accounted for by repeat length. Such phenotypic variation within disorders implies the existence of additional modifying factors in pathways that can potentially be modulated to treat disease.
Recent developments: A genome-wide association study detected genetic modifiers of age at onset in Huntington's disease. Similar findings were seen in the spinocerebellar ataxias, indicating an association between DNA damage-response and repair pathways and the age at onset of disease. These studies also suggest that a common genetic mechanism modulates age at onset across polyglutamine diseases and could extend to other repeat expansion disorders. Genetic defects in DNA repair underlie other neurodegenerative disorders (eg, ataxia-telangiectasia), and DNA double-strand breaks are crucial to the modulation of early gene expression, which provides a mechanistic link between DNA repair and neurodegeneration. Mismatch and base-excision repair are important in the somatic expansion of repeated sequences in mouse models of trinucleotide repeat disorders, and somatic expansion of the expanded CAG tract in HTT correlates with age at onset of Huntington's disease and other trinucleotide repeat disorders. WHERE NEXT?: To understand the common genetic architecture of trinucleotide repeat disorders and any further genetic susceptibilities in individual disorders, genetic analysis with increased numbers of variants and sample sizes is needed, followed by sequencing approaches to define the phenotype-modifying variants. The findings must then be translated into cell biology analyses to elucidate the mechanisms through which the genetic variants operate. Genes that have roles in the DNA damage response could underpin a common DNA repeat-based mechanism and provide new therapeutic targets (and hence therapeutics) in multiple trinucleotide repeat disorders.
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