A new study in the laboratory of Robert J. Schneider at NYU Langone and his collaborators has uncovered a gene that plays integral roles in the repair of injured muscle throughout life. This investigation shows that this previously “overlooked” gene might play a pivotal role in “sarcopenia,” which refers to the loss of muscle tissues with age.
This collaboration between scientists at NYU Langone Medical Center and the University of Colorado at Boulder showed that the levels of a protein called AUF1 determine if stem cell populations retain the ability to regenerate muscle after injury and as mice age.
Changes in the activity of AUF1 have also been linked by past studies to human muscle diseases. More than 30 genetic diseases, known collectively as myopathies, show defective muscle regeneration and these anomalies cause muscles to weaken or waste away.
For example, muscular dystrophy is a disease in which abnormal muscles fail to function properly and undergo normal repair. Although the signs and symptoms of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy vary, in some cases wildly, this disease develops in infants and affects and weakens the torso and limb muscles beginning in young adulthood. Sarcopenia, in healthy individuals occurs in older patients.
Skeletal muscles have a stem cell population set aside for muscle repair known as satellite cells. These cells divide and differentiate into skeletal muscle when skeletal muscle is damaged, and as we age, the capacity of muscle satellite cells to repair muscle decreases.
AUF1 is a protein that regulates muscle stem cell function by inducing the degradation of specific, targeted messenger RNAs (mRNAs). According to Robert Schneider, “This work places the origin of certain muscle diseases squarely within muscle stem cells, and shows that AUF1 is a vital controller of adult muscle stem cell fate.” He continued: “The stem cell supply is remarkably depleted when the AUF1 signal is defective, leaving muscles to deteriorate a little more each time repair fails after injury.”
The experiments in this study demonstrated that mice that lack AUF1 display accelerated skeletal muscle wasting as they age. These AUF1-depleted mice also showed impaired skeletal muscle repair following injury. When the molecular characteristics of these AUF1-depleted muscle satellite cells were examined, Schneider and his collaborators showed that auf1−/− satellite cells had increased stability and overexpression of so-called “ARE-mRNAs.” ARE mRNAs contain AU-rich elements at their tail-ends. AUF1 proteins bind to these ARE mRNAs and induce their degradation. In the absence of AUF1, muscle satellite cells accumulate ARE mRNAs. One of these ARE mRNAs includes that which encodes matrix metalloprotease, MMP9. Overexpression of MMP9 by aging muscle satellite cells causes degradation of the skeletal muscle matrix, which prevents satellite-cell-mediated regeneration of muscles. Consequently, the muscle satellite cells return to their quiescent state and fail to divide and repair skeletal muscle.
When Schneider and his coworkers and collaborators blocked MMP9 activity in auf1−/− mice, they found that they had restored skeletal muscle repair and maintenance of the satellite cell population.
These experiments suggest that repurposing drugs originally developed for cancer treatment that blocks MMP9 activity might be a way to dial down age-related sarcopenia.
“This provides a potential path to clinical treatments that accelerate muscle regeneration following traumatic injury, or in patients with certain types of adult onset muscular dystrophy,” said Schneider.
This work was published here: Devon M. Chenette et al., “Targeted mRNA Decay by RNA Binding Protein AUF1 Regulates Adult Muscle Stem Cell Fate, Promoting Skeletal Muscle Integrity,” Cell Reports, 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2016.06.095.