Background: Upper motor neurons (UMNs) are a key component of motor neuron circuitry. Their degeneration is a hallmark for diseases, such as hereditary spastic paraplegia (HSP), primary lateral sclerosis (PLS), and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Currently there are no preclinical assays investigating cellular responses of UMNs to compound treatment, even for diseases of the UMNs. The basis of UMN vulnerability is not fully understood, and no compound has yet been identified to improve the health of diseased UMNs: two major roadblocks for building effective treatment strategies.
Methods: Novel UMN reporter models, in which UMNs that are diseased because of misfolded superoxide dismutase protein (mSOD1) toxicity and TDP-43 pathology are labeled with eGFP expression, allow direct assessment of UMN response to compound treatment. Electron microscopy reveals very precise aspects of endoplasmic reticulum (ER) and mitochondrial damage. Administration of NU-9, a compound initially identified based on its ability to reduce mSOD1 toxicity, has profound impact on improving the health and stability of UMNs, as identified by detailed cellular and ultrastructural analyses.
Results: Problems with mitochondria and ER are conserved in diseased UMNs among different species. NU-9 has drug-like pharmacokinetic properties. It lacks toxicity and crosses the blood brain barrier. NU-9 improves the structural integrity of mitochondria and ER, reduces levels of mSOD1, stabilizes degenerating UMN apical dendrites, improves motor behavior measured by the hanging wire test, and eliminates ongoing degeneration of UMNs that become diseased both because of mSOD1 toxicity and TDP-43 pathology, two distinct and important overarching causes of motor neuron degeneration.
Conclusions: Mechanism-focused and cell-based drug discovery approaches not only addressed key cellular defects responsible for UMN loss, but also identified NU-9, the first compound to improve the health of diseased UMNs, neurons that degenerate in ALS, HSP, PLS, and ALS/FTLD patients.
Keywords: ALS; HSP; NU-9; PLS; TDP-43 pathology; mSOD1; upper motor neurons.
© 2021 The Authors. Clinical and Translational Medicine published by John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd on behalf of Shanghai Institute of Clinical Bioinformatics.