Huntington's disease (HD) (OMIM 143100) is caused by an expanded CAG repeat tract in the HTT gene. The inherited CAG length is known to expand further in somatic and germline cells in HD subjects. Age at onset of the disease is inversely correlated with the inherited CAG length, but is further modulated by a series of genetic modifiers which are most likely to act on the CAG repeat in HTT that permit it to further expand. Longer repeats are more prone to expansions, and this expansion is age dependent and tissue-specific. Given that the inherited tract expands through life and most subjects develop disease in mid-life, this implies that in cells that degenerate, the CAG length is likely to be longer than the inherited length. These findings suggest two thresholds- the inherited CAG length which permits further expansion, and the intracellular pathogenic threshold, above which cells become dysfunctional and die. This two-step mechanism has been previously proposed and modelled mathematically to give an intracellular pathogenic threshold at a tract length of 115 CAG (95% confidence intervals 70- 165 CAG). Empirically, the intracellular pathogenic threshold is difficult to determine. Clues from studies of people and models of HD, and from other diseases caused by expanded repeat tracts, place this threshold between 60- 100 CAG, most likely towards the upper part of that range. We assess this evidence and discuss how the intracellular pathogenic threshold in manifest disease might be better determined. Knowing the cellular pathogenic threshold would be informative for both understanding the mechanism in HD and deploying treatments.
Keywords: DNA repair; DNA repeat expansion; Huntington’s disease; spinocerebellar ataxias; trinucleotide repeat.