Alleviating GAA Repeat Induced Transcriptional Silencing of the Friedreich's Ataxia Gene During Somatic Cell Reprogramming

Urszula Polak, Yanjie Li, Jill Sergesketter Butler, Marek Napierala

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Friedreich's ataxia (FRDA) is the most common autosomal recessive ataxia. This severe neurodegenerative disease is caused by an expansion of guanine-adenine-adenine (GAA) repeats located in the first intron of the frataxin (FXN) gene, which represses its transcription. Although transcriptional silencing is associated with heterochromatin-like changes in the vicinity of the expanded GAAs, the exact mechanism and pathways involved in transcriptional inhibition are largely unknown. As major remodeling of the epigenome is associated with somatic cell reprogramming, modulating chromatin modification pathways during the cellular transition from a somatic to a pluripotent state is likely to generate permanent changes to the epigenetic landscape. We hypothesize that the epigenetic modifications in the vicinity of the GAA repeats can be reversed by pharmacological modulation during somatic cell reprogramming. We reprogrammed FRDA fibroblasts into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) in the presence of various small molecules that target DNA methylation and histone acetylation and methylation. Treatment of FRDA iPSCs with two compounds, sodium butyrate (NaB) and Parnate, led to an increase in FXN expression and correction of repressive marks at the FXN locus, which persisted for several passages. However, prolonged culture of the epigenetically modified FRDA iPSCs led to progressive expansions of the GAA repeats and a corresponding decrease in FXN expression. Furthermore, we uncovered that differentiation of these iPSCs into neurons also results in resilencing of the FXN gene. Taken together, these results demonstrate that transcriptional repression caused by long GAA repeat tracts can be partially or transiently reversed by altering particular epigenetic modifications, thus revealing possibilities for detailed analyses of silencing mechanism and development of new therapeutic approaches for FRDA.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1788-1800
Number of pages13
JournalStem Cells and Development
Issue number23
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • FXN silencing
  • Friedreich's ataxia
  • expanded GAA repeats
  • induced pluripotent stem cells
  • somatic cell reprogramming

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Hematology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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