“No pain, no gain.” So say those working out to build up their muscles, and on a cellular level it is a pretty accurate description of how muscle mass increases. Exercise causes tears in muscle membrane and the healing process produces an increased amount of healthy muscle. Implicit in this scenario is the notion that muscle repair is an efficient and ongoing process in healthy individuals. However, the repair process is not well understood. New University of Iowa research into two types of muscular dystrophy now has opened the door on a muscle repair process and identified a protein that plays a critical role.

The protein, called dysferlin, is mutated in two distinct muscular dystrophies known as Miyoshi Myopathy and limb-girdle muscular dystrophy type 2b. The UI study suggests that in these diseases, the characteristic, progressive muscle degeneration is due to a faulty muscle-repair mechanism rather than an inherent weakness in the muscle’s structural integrity. The research findings reveal a totally new cellular cause of muscular dystrophy and may lead to many discoveries about normal muscle function and to therapies for muscle disorders.

The research team led by Kevin Campbell, Ph.D., the Roy J. Carver Chair of Physiology and Biophysics and interim head of the department, UI professor of neurology, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator, studied the molecular consequences of losing dysferlin and discovered that without dysferlin muscles were unable to heal themselves.

The UI team genetically engineered mice to lack the dysferlin gene. Just like humans with Miyoshi Myopathy and limb-girdle muscular dystrophy type 2b, the mice developed a muscular dystrophy, which gets progressively worse with age. However, treadmill tests revealed that the muscles of mice that lack dysferlin were not much more susceptible to damage than the muscles of normal mice. This contrasts with most muscular dystrophies of known cause where genetic mutations weaken muscle membranes and make muscles more prone to damage.

“This told us that the dystrophies caused by dysferlin loss were very different in terms of how the disease process works compared to other dystrophies we have studied,” Campbell said. “We were gradually picking up clues that showed we had a different type of muscular dystrophy here.”

Most muscular dystrophy causing genetic mutations have been linked to disruption of a large protein complex that controls the structural integrity of muscle cells. The researchers found that dysferlin was not associated with this large protein complex. Rather, dysferlin is normally found throughout muscle plasma membrane and also in vesicles, which are small membrane bubbles that encapsulate important cellular substances and ferry them around cells. Vesicles also are important for moving membrane around in cells.

Previous studies have shown that resealing cell membranes requires the accumulation and fusing of vesicles to repair the damaged site.

Using an electron microscope to examine muscles lacking dysferlin, the UI team found that although vesicles gathered at damaged membrane sites, the membrane was not resealed. In contrast, the team discovered that when normal muscle is injured, visible “patches” form at the damaged sites, which seal the holes in the membrane. Chemicals that tag dysferlin proved that these “patches” were enriched with dysferlin and the patches appeared to be formed by the fusion of dysferlin-containing vesicles that traveled though the cell to the site of membrane damage.

The researchers then used a high-powered laser and a special dye to visualize the repair process in real time.

Under normal conditions, the dye is unable to penetrate muscle membrane. However, if the membrane is broken the dye can enter the muscle fiber where it fluoresces. Using the laser to damage a specific area of muscle membrane, the researchers could watch the fluorescence increase as the dye flowed into the muscle fiber.

“The more dye that entered, the more fluorescence we saw,” Campbell explained. “However, once the membrane was repaired, no more dye could enter and the level of fluorescence remained steady. Measuring the increase in fluorescence let us measure the amount of time that the membrane stayed open before repair sealed the membrane and prevented any more dye from entering.”

In the presence of calcium, normal membrane repaired itself in about a minute. In the absence of calcium, vesicles gathered at the damaged muscle membrane, but they did not fuse with each other or with the membrane and the membrane was not repaired. In muscle that lacked dysferlin, even in the presence of calcium, the damaged site was not repaired.

Campbell speculated that dysferlin, which contains calcium-binding regions, may be acting as a calcium sensor and that the repair system needs to sense the calcium in order to initiate the fusion and patching of the hole. Campbell added that purifying the protein and testing its properties should help pin down its role in the repair process.

The discovery of a muscle repair process and of dysferlin’s role raises many new questions. In particular, Campbell wonders what other proteins might be involved and whether defects in those components could be the cause of other muscular dystrophies.

“This work has described a new physiological mechanism in muscle and identified a component of this repair process,” Campbell said. “What is really exciting for me is the feeling that this is just a little hint of a much bigger picture.”

In addition to Campbell, the UI researchers included Dimple Bansal, a graduate student in Campbell’s laboratory and the lead author of the paper, Severine Groh, Ph.D., and Chien-Chang Chen, Ph.D., both UI post-doctoral researchers in physiology and biophysics and neurology, and Roger Williamson, M.D., UI professor of obstetrics and gynecology. Also part of the research team were Katsuya Miyake, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher, and Paul McNeil, Ph.D., a professor of cellular biology and anatomy at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Ga., and Steven Vogel, Ph.D., at the Laboratory of Molecular Physiology at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Rockville, Md.

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Article adapted by MD Sports from original press release.
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Contact: Jennifer Brown
University of Iowa 

The study was funded by a grant from the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership between the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and UI Hospitals and Clinics and the patient care, medical education and research programs and services they provide.

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