Engineering exon-skipping vectors expressing U7 snRNA constructs for Duchenne muscular dystrophy gene therapy

Aurélie Goyenvalle, Kay E Davies
Methods in Molecular Biology 2011, 709: 179-96
Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a fatal muscle wasting disorder caused by mutations in the dystrophin gene. In most cases, the open-reading frame is disrupted which results in the absence of a functional protein. Antisense-mediated exon skipping is one of the most promising approaches for the treatment of DMD and has recently been shown to correct the reading frame and restore dystrophin expression in vitro and in vivo. Specific exon skipping can be achieved using synthetic oligonucleotides or viral -vectors encoding modified snRNAs, by masking important splicing sites. We have recently demonstrated that enhanced exon skipping can be induced by a U7 snRNA carrying binding sites for the heterogeneous ribonucleoprotein A1. In DMD patient cells, bifunctional U7 snRNAs harboring silencer motifs induce complete skipping of exon 51 and thus restore dystrophin expression to near wild-type levels. Furthermore, we have confirmed the efficacy of these constructs in vivo in transgenic mice carrying the entire human DMD locus after intramuscular injection of AAV vectors encoding the bifunctional U7 snRNA. These new constructs are very promising for the optimization of therapeutic exon skipping for DMD, but also offer powerful and versatile tools to modulate pre-mRNA splicing in a wide range of applications. Here, we outline the design of these U7 snRNA constructs to achieve efficient exon skipping of the dystrophin gene. We also describe methods to evaluate the efficiency of such U7 snRNA constructs in vitro in DMD patient cells and in vivo in the transgenic hDMD mouse model, using lentiviral and recombinant adeno-associated viral vectors, respectively.

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