News Release

Team discovers novel root cause of tau-induced neurodegeneration

mRNA quality control identified as novel drug target for Alzheimer’s and related dementias

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio

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SAN ANTONIO (April 13, 2022) — Researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) today reported the discovery of a novel mechanism by which pathological forms of tau protein cause neurons to die. Alzheimer’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) are among more than 20 disorders that include tau protein pathology.

The newly found mechanism of tau-induced damage can be altered pharmacologically, the scientists noted, making it a novel target for drug development.

The study, published in Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association, “provides a framework for future studies in vertebrate models of tauopathy and eventually clinical trials in people,” first author Gabrielle Zuniga said. Zuniga is an MD/PhD student in the South Texas Medical Scientist Training Program offered jointly by the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences of UT Health San Antonio.

“The fact it is a druggable target is really exciting, and it is a new mechanism that wasn’t previously established,” Zuniga said.

An early event, before neurons die

Working with a fruit fly that expresses mutant human tau, the scientists observed deficits in an RNA quality-control pathway known as nonsense-mediated mRNA decay. “This is an early event,” Zuniga said. “These changes in RNA quality control occurred long before neuronal cell death.”

“Nonsense-mediated mRNA decay is a key step in the process by which genetic information is translated into proteins,” Zuniga said. Impairment of this quality-control mechanism results in buildups of RNA and production of abnormal, dysfunctional proteins. “It has an absolutely detrimental effect,” Zuniga said.

DNA (a molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid) contains the genetic blueprints for proteins. Messenger RNA (ribonucleic acid) reads out the blueprints to make proteins. This information highway becomes logjammed when nonsense-mediated mRNA decay is reduced.

“We are focusing on how cells clear faulty RNAs, and how this RNA quality control mechanism goes awry in disease. If these types of RNAs accumulate in a cell and are translated into proteins, bad things can happen,” said senior author Bess Frost, PhD, Bartell Zachry Distinguished Professor for Research in Neurodegenerative Disorders at UT Health San Antonio. Dr. Frost, associate professor of cell systems and anatomy, is a member of the health science center’s Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies and the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases.

Going beyond tau deposition

Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other tauopathies have failed in part because they focused on clearing tau protein or another protein called amyloid beta. Amyloid beta plaques and tau tangles are classic hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.

“Rather than targeting tau deposition, which is late in the disease process, why don’t we stop the pathways that are actually causing the neurons to die?” said Sudha Seshadri, MD, professor of neurology in the Long School of Medicine and founding director of the Glenn Biggs Institute. “This appears to be one of those pathways, and its discovery is a brilliant piece of detective work by Gabrielle Zuniga, Dr. Frost and the team.”

Dr. Seshadri and Dr. Frost are investigators of the South Texas Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, a recently awarded National Institutes of Health Center of Excellence that is a partnership of UT Health San Antonio and UT Rio Grande Valley. It is the only designated Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in Texas.

Identifying multiple mechanisms underlying tau (and amyloid beta) pathology could result in understanding which patients might benefit from which therapies, said Nicolas Musi, MD, professor of medicine at UT Health San Antonio and director of the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute. A subset of Alzheimer’s disease patients might be responsive to a drug that increases nonsense-mediated mRNA decay, for example.

MD/PhD student

First author Zuniga completed two years in the Long School of Medicine before embarking on her Doctor of Philosophy studies. She is a June candidate for her PhD degree and will return to medical school in the fall for years three and four of her journey to become a physician. Originally from Chapel Hill, N.C., she is a 2015 graduate of The University of Texas at Austin.

“Gabbe exemplifies the brilliance of our MSTP students who undertake this ambitious, dual-degree academic medicine path and who have the determination to serve humanity by conducting rigorous translational research that makes lives better,” said Jose E. Cavazos, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and assistant dean of the South Texas Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP).

Translating life sciences discoveries into practical applications aligns perfectly with the standing of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio as the largest research university in South Texas with an annual research portfolio of approximately $350 million.

This project was supported by multiple National Institutes of Health grant awards: R01 AG057896 (to Dr. Bess Frost) and T32 AG021890, T32 GM113896, TL1 TR002647, and T32 NS082145 (to Gabrielle Zuniga).

Tau-induced deficits in nonsense-mediated mRNA decay contribute to neurodegeneration

Gabrielle Zuniga, Simon Levy, Paulino Ramirez, Jasmine De Mange, Elias Gonzalez, Maria Gamez and Bess Frost

First published: April 13, 2022, Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) is a primary driver for San Antonio’s $42.4 billion health care and biosciences sector, the city’s largest economic generator. Driving substantial economic impact with its five professional schools, a diverse workforce of 7,200, an annual operating budget of more than $1 billion and a clinical practice that provides more than 2 million patient visits each year, UT Health San Antonio plans to add more than 1,500 higher-wage jobs over the next five years to serve San Antonio, Bexar County and South Texas. UT Health San Antonio is the largest research university in South Texas with an annual research portfolio of approximately $350 million.

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