UMMS Affiliation

Department of Neurology

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Cell Biology | Nervous System Diseases | Neurology


BACKGROUND: An intronic GGGGCC (G4C2) hexanucleotide repeat expansion (HRE) in the C9ORF72 gene is the most common cause of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD), referred to as C9ALS/FTD. No cure or effective treatment exist for C9ALS/FTD. Three major molecular mechanisms have emerged to explain C9ALS/FTD disease mechanisms: (1) C9ORF72 loss-of-function through haploinsufficiency, (2) dipeptide repeat (DPR) proteins mediated toxicity by the translation of the repeat RNAs, and more controversial, (3) RNA-mediated toxicity by bidirectional transcription of the repeats that form intranuclear RNA foci. Recent studies indicate a double-hit pathogenic mechanism in C9ALS/FTD, where reduced C9ORF72 protein levels lead to impaired clearance of toxic DPRs. Here we explored whether pharmacological compounds can revert these pathological hallmarks in vitro and cognitive impairment in a C9ALS/FTD mouse model (C9BAC). We specifically focused our study on small molecule inhibitors targeting chromatin-regulating proteins (epidrugs) with the goal of increasing C9ORF72 gene expression and reduce toxic DPRs.

RESULTS: We generated luciferase reporter cell lines containing 10 (control) or > /= 90 (mutant) G4C2 HRE located between exon 1a and 1b of the human C9ORF72 gene. In a screen of 14 different epidrugs targeting bromodomains, chromodomains and histone-modifying enzymes, we found that several bromodomain and extra-terminal domain (BET) inhibitors (BETi), including PFI-1 and JQ1, increased luciferase reporter activity. Using primary cortical cultures from C9BAC mice, we further found that PFI-1 treatment increased the expression of V1-V3 transcripts of the human mutant C9ORF72 gene, reduced poly(GP)-DPR inclusions but enhanced intranuclear RNA foci. We also tested whether JQ1, an BETi previously shown to reach the mouse brain by intraperitoneal (i.p.) injection, can revert behavioral abnormalities in C9BAC mice. Interestingly, it was found that JQ1 administration (daily i.p. administration for 7 days) rescued hippocampal-dependent cognitive deficits in C9BAC mice.

CONCLUSIONS: Our findings place BET bromodomain inhibitors as a potential therapy for C9ALS/FTD by ameliorating C9ORF72-associated pathological and behavioral abnormalities. Our finding that PFI-1 increases accumulation of intranuclear RNA foci is in agreement with recent data in flies suggesting that nuclear RNA foci can be neuroprotective by sequestering repeat transcripts that result in toxic DPRs.


BET inhibitors, C9ORF72, DPR, Epigenetics, Memory, RNA foci

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Copyright © The Author(s) 2021. Open Access. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

DOI of Published Version



Quezada E, Cappelli C, Diaz I, Jury N, Wightman N, Brown RH Jr, Montecino M, van Zundert B. BET bromodomain inhibitors PFI-1 and JQ1 are identified in an epigenetic compound screen to enhance C9ORF72 gene expression and shown to ameliorate C9ORF72-associated pathological and behavioral abnormalities in a C9ALS/FTD model. Clin Epigenetics. 2021 Mar 16;13(1):56. doi: 10.1186/s13148-021-01039-z. PMID: 33726839; PMCID: PMC7962347. Link to article on publisher's site

Journal/Book/Conference Title

Clinical epigenetics

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Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.