Watchon, M., Yuan, K.C., Mackovski, N., Svahn, A.J., Cole, N.J., Goldsbury, C., Rinkwitz, S., Becker, T.S., Nicholson, G.A., Laird, A.S. (2017) Calpain inhibition is protective in Machado-Joseph disease zebrafish due to induction of autophagy. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience. 37(32):7782-7794.
The neurodegenerative disease Machado-Joseph disease (MJD), also known as spinocerebellar ataxin-3, affects neurons of the brain and spinal cord, disrupting control of the movement of muscles. We have successfully established the first transgenic zebrafish (Danio rerio) model of MJD by expressing human ataxin-3 protein containing either 23 glutamines (23Q, wild-type) or 84Q (MJD-causing) within neurons. Phenotypic characterization of the zebrafish (male and female) revealed that the ataxin-3-84Q zebrafish have decreased survival compared with ataxin-3-23Q and develop ataxin-3 neuropathology, ataxin-3 cleavage fragments and motor impairment. Ataxin-3-84Q zebrafish swim shorter distances than ataxin-3-23Q zebrafish as early as 6 days old, even if expression of the human ataxin-3 protein is limited to motor neurons. This swimming phenotype provides a valuable readout for drug treatment studies. Treating the EGFP-ataxin-3-84Q zebrafish with the calpain inhibitor compound calpeptin decreased levels of ataxin-3 cleavage fragments, but also removed all human ataxin-3 protein (confirmed by ELISA) and prevented the early MJD zebrafish motor phenotype. We identified that this clearance of ataxin-3 protein by calpeptin treatment resulted from an increase in autophagic flux (indicated by decreased p62 levels and increased LC3II). Cotreatment with the autophagy inhibitor chloroquine blocked the decrease in human ataxin-3 levels and the improved movement produced by calpeptin treatment. This study demonstrates that this first transgenic zebrafish model of MJD is a valuable tool for testing potential treatments for MJD. Calpeptin treatment is protective in this model of MJD and removal of human ataxin-3 through macro-autophagy plays an important role in this beneficial effect. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT We have established the first transgenic zebrafish model of the neurodegenerative disease MJD, and identified relevant disease phenotypes, including impaired movement from an early age, which can be used in rapid drug testing studies. We have found that treating the MJD zebrafish with the calpain inhibitor compound calpeptin produces complete removal of human ataxin-3 protein, due to induction of the autophagy quality control pathway. This improves the movement of the MJD zebrafish. Artificially blocking the autophagy pathway prevents the removal of human ataxin-3 and improved movement produced by calpeptin treatment. These findings indicate that induction of autophagy, and removal of ataxin-3 protein, plays an important role in the protective effects of calpain inhibition for the treatment of MJD.