5|25: Celebrating Five Years of Autism Science Day 4: Convergence on PTEN Signaling Pathway
In honor of the anniversary of Autism Speaks’ founding on Feb 25, for the next 25 days we will be sharing stories about the many significant scientific advances that have occurred during our first five years together. Our fourth item, Convergence on PTEN Signaling Pathway, is from Autism Speaks’ Top 10 Autism Research Events of 2007.
Model systems for studying the complex and fundamentally human challenge of autism will be vitally important to solving autism because they allow researchers to study the underlying biology in a manner that is not possible in humans. Finding an animal model system with similar behavioral tendencies as humans allows researchers to study which biochemical pathways break down in autism and, most importantly, how they can be treated. In 2007, researchers added an important new model system to their arsenal, the “PTEN conditional knockout” mouse.
PTEN is a gene that encodes for a protein involved in several critical signaling pathways inside cells, including metabolism, growth and survival. To carry out its cellular duties, PTEN interacts with several other important proteins in a biochemical signaling cascade. Other proteins in this signaling pathway have previously been tied to developmental disorders such as Tuberous Sclerosis and Neurofibromatosis. In 2005, researchers found that within a small subset of individuals with autism and macrocephaly (large heads) 17% had mutations in the PTEN gene. This raised the possibility that disrupting PTEN activity, and the signaling pathways within which it functions, may result in some forms of autism. This year researchers succeeded in using complex genetic manipulations to shutdown the mouse version of the gene (PTEN) in the brain of young mice. Surprisingly, not only did these animals grow larger brains, the mice also displayed abnormal social behaviors and seizures, both of which can be features of autism.
These results provided important data supporting the emerging relevance of cellular signaling pathways to autistic behaviors, and are now focusing some researchers on specific molecules that could potentially become targets for cell-based therapeutics.
Update since this story was first run: Having discovered that disrupting the PTEN signaling pathway leads to autism-associated signs, in 2009 the researchers went on to further show that manipulation of the PTEN signaling pathway can serve as a successful treatment strategy. Making use of these same mice, they found that treatment with a pharmacological inhibitor of the PTEN pathway improved the autism-like pathology of the animals, including unusual social behaviors and seizures. Published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the newest data strengthen the case for focusing on this signaling pathway as a viable target for novel autism therapeutics.