TAU researchers discover genetic mechanism associated with autism, schizophrenia, and other conditions

Experimental drug also developed at a TAU lab may be suitable for treating syndromes that impair brain functions

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Researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) have unraveled a mechanism shared by mutations in the genes ADNP and SHANK3, which cause autism, schizophrenia, and other conditions. The researchers also found that an experimental drug previously developed in their lab is effective in lab models for these mutations and may be suitable for treating a range of rare syndromes that impair brain functions.

The encouraging results may lead to effective treatments for a range of rare syndromes that impair brain functions and cause autism, schizophrenia, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The study was led by Professor Illana Gozes from the Department of Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry at TAU’s Faculty of Medicine and Sagol School of Neuroscience and Director of TAU’s Adams Super Center for Brain Studies. The paper was published in the scientific journal Molecular Psychiatry.

“Some cases of autism are caused by mutations in various genes,” Professor Gozes explains. “Today we know of more than 100 genetic syndromes associated with autism, 10 of which are considered relatively common, though still extremely rare. In our lab we focus mainly on one of these, the ADNP syndrome, caused by mutations in the ADNP gene, which disrupt the function of the ADNP protein, leading to structural defects in the skeleton of neurons in the brain.

“In the current study, we identified a specific mechanism that causes this damage in mutations in two different genes: ADNP and SHANK3, a gene associated with autism and schizophrenia. According to estimates, these two mutations are responsible for thousands of cases of autism around the world.”

The researchers first obtained cells from patients with ADNP syndrome. They discovered that when the ADNP protein is defective, neurons with faulty skeletons (microtubules) are formed, impairing brain functions. They also found, however, that ADNP mutations take different forms, some of which cause less damage.

“We discovered that in some mutations, a section added to the protein protects it and reduces the damage by connecting to a control site of the neuron’s skeletal system,” Professor Gozes continues. “We know that this same control site is found on SHANK3, a much-studied protein with mutations that are associated with autism and schizophrenia. We concluded that the ability to bond with SHANK3 and other similar proteins provides some protection against the mutation’s damaging effects.”

At the next stage of the study, the researchers found additional sites on the ADNP protein that can bond with SHANK3 and similar proteins. One of these sites is located on NAP, a section of ADNP which was developed into Davunetide, an experimental drug from Professor Gozes’ lab. Moreover, the researchers demonstrated that extended treatment with Davunetide significantly improved the behavior of model animals with autism caused by SHANK3.

“In previous studies we showed that Davunetide is effective for treating ADNP syndrome models,” Professor Gozes says. “The new study has led us to believe that it may also be effective in the case of Phelan McDermid syndrome, caused by a mutation in SHANK3, as well as other syndromes that cause autism through the same mechanism.”

The experimental drug Davunetide was recognized by the FDA as an orphan and rare pediatric drug for future treatment of the developmental syndrome ADNP and is protected by patents through Ramot, the technology transfer company at Tel Aviv University and exclusively licensed to ATED Therapeutics Ltd. Other participants in the study included Dr. Yanina Ivashko-Pachima, Maram Ganaiem, Inbar Ben-Horin-Hazak, Alexandra Lobyntseva, Naomi Bellaiche, Inbar Fischer, Gilad Levy, Dr. Shlomo Sragovich, Dr. Gidon Karmon, and Dr. Eliezer Giladi from TAU’s Faculty of Medicine and Sagol School of Neuroscience; Dr. Boaz Barak from TAU’s School of Psychological Sciences, Gershon H. Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences, and Sagol School of Neuroscience; and Dr. Shula Shazman from the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at the Open University.



"The new study has led us to believe that the drug may also be effective in other syndromes that cause autism through the same mechanism."