Study Identifies New Targets for Huntington’s Disease Research

Ghazaleh Sadri-Vakili, PhD, is the director of the NeuroEpigenetics Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases (MIND).  Her work investigating the genetics of Huntington’s disease was recently featured in an article on the Mass General Giving website.

Here are five things to know:

  1. Huntington’s disease (HD) is a fatal genetic disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. Symptoms typically start occurring between the ages of 30 and 50. The disease is highly heritable—each child of a parent with HD has a 50% chance of inheriting the faulty gene.
  2. According to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA), symptoms of HD typically begin with a loss of coordination and cognitive skills. These declines get more pronounced as the disease progresses. In late stages, HD patients lose the ability to walk and speak, and choking becomes a major concern. Death is typically due to complications from the disease and not the disease itself.
  3. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have been at the forefront of research into the genetic underpinnings of Huntington’s disease for the past two decades. In 1983, a team led by James Gusella, PhD, identified the section on chromosome 4 where the HD gene was located. In 1993, a multi-institutional research group that included Marcy E. MacDonald, PhD, and Dr. Gusella identified the gene itself.
  4. Recently, a research team led by Ghazaleh Sadri-Vakili, PhD, has been studying how gene expression differs in patients with HD. Her team has identified two ways in which a genetic pathway known as the Hippo pathway malfunctions in HD. These malfunctions cause HD patients to produce too much of an enzyme called MST, and not enough of a protein called YAP.
  5. If researchers are able to identify drugs that correct this imbalance, they may be able to develop treatments that slow or halt the progression of the disease.

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