Druggable genome screen identifies new regulators of the abundance and toxicity of ATXN3, the Spinocerebellar Ataxia type 3 disease protein

Neurobiol Dis. 2020 Apr;137:104697. doi: 10.1016/j.nbd.2019.104697. Epub 2019 Nov 26.


Spinocerebellar Ataxia type 3 (SCA3, also known as Machado-Joseph disease) is a neurodegenerative disorder caused by a CAG repeat expansion encoding an abnormally long polyglutamine (polyQ) tract in the disease protein, ataxin-3 (ATXN3). No preventive treatment is yet available for SCA3. Because SCA3 is likely caused by a toxic gain of ATXN3 function, a rational therapeutic strategy is to reduce mutant ATXN3 levels by targeting pathways that control its production or stability. Here, we sought to identify genes that modulate ATXN3 levels as potential therapeutic targets in this fatal disorder. We screened a collection of siRNAs targeting 2742 druggable human genes using a cell-based assay based on luminescence readout of polyQ-expanded ATXN3. From 317 candidate genes identified in the primary screen, 100 genes were selected for validation. Among the 33 genes confirmed in secondary assays, 15 were validated in an independent cell model as modulators of pathogenic ATXN3 protein levels. Ten of these genes were then assessed in a Drosophila model of SCA3, and one was confirmed as a key modulator of physiological ATXN3 abundance in SCA3 neuronal progenitor cells. Among the 15 genes shown to modulate ATXN3 in mammalian cells, orthologs of CHD4, FBXL3, HR and MC3R regulate mutant ATXN3-mediated toxicity in fly eyes. Further mechanistic studies of one of these genes, FBXL3, encoding a F-box protein that is a component of the SKP1-Cullin-F-box (SCF) ubiquitin ligase complex, showed that it reduces levels of normal and pathogenic ATXN3 in SCA3 neuronal progenitor cells, primarily via a SCF complex-dependent manner. Bioinformatic analysis of the 15 genes revealed a potential molecular network with connections to tumor necrosis factor-α/nuclear factor-kappa B (TNF/NF-kB) and extracellular signal-regulated kinases 1 and 2 (ERK1/2) pathways. Overall, we identified 15 druggable genes with diverse functions to be suppressors or enhancers of pathogenic ATXN3 abundance. Among identified pathways highlighted by this screen, the FBXL3/SCF axis represents a novel molecular pathway that regulates physiological levels of ATXN3 protein.

Keywords: Drosophila; High-throughput screen; Human embryonic stem cells; Machado-Joseph disease; Neurodegeneration; Polyglutamine; Spinocerebellar ataxia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Ataxin-3 / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Machado-Joseph Disease / genetics*
  • Machado-Joseph Disease / pathology
  • Mi-2 Nucleosome Remodeling and Deacetylase Complex / genetics
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins / metabolism
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / genetics
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Repressor Proteins / genetics*


  • CHD4 protein, human
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins
  • Repressor Proteins
  • ATXN3 protein, human
  • Ataxin-3
  • Mi-2 Nucleosome Remodeling and Deacetylase Complex