Gene therapy helps weak mice grow strong and helped those with neuromuscular disease live longer

A virus that shuttles a therapeutic gene into cells has strengthened the muscles, improved the motor skills, and lengthened the lifespan of mice afflicted with two neuromuscular diseases. The approach could one day help people with a range of similar disorders, from muscular dystrophy to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Many of these diseases involve defective neuromuscular junctions—the interface between neurons and muscle cells where brain signals tell muscles to contract. In one such disease, a form of familial limb-girdle myasthenia, people carry two defective copies of the gene called DOK7, which codes for a protein that’s needed to form such junctions. Their hip and shoulder muscles atrophy over many years, and some eventually have trouble breathing or end up in a wheelchair. Mice similarly missing a properly working Dok7 gene are severely underweight and die within a few weeks.

They first injected young mice engineered to have defective Dok7 with a harmless virus carrying a good copy of the Dok7 gene, which is expressed only in muscle. Within about 7 weeks, the rodents recovered. Their muscle cells cranked out the DOK7 protein, and under a microscope their muscles had larger neuromuscular junctions than those of untreated mice with defective Dok7. What’s more, the mice grew to a healthy body weight and had essentially normal scores on tests of motor skills and muscle strength.

They are testing the DOK7 therapy in other diseases and in larger animals.

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