Study sparks new approach to BPAN understanding and treatment

Hong Zhang 

Professor Hong Zhang, a researcher at the institute of Biophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, China, reports findings on his BPAN research. You can also watch a video about his work presented at the recent NBIA scientific symposium that will be available soon.

October 2020

Study sparks new approach to BPAN understanding and treatment

A recently completed BPAN study supported by the NBIA Disorders Association has led to a new understanding of how a genetic flaw causes the disorder and how it could be corrected, lead researcher Dr. Hong Zhang said.

Zhang, a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a researcher at the Institute of Biophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said he was excited by the findings. He and his team are now working on a treatment strategy for BPAN based on the study results, he said.

Zhang’s research received two grants of slightly over $51,000 each in 2017 and 2018 as part of the Million Dollar Bike Ride put on by the Orphan Disease Center at the University of Pennsylvania. NBIA families rode bikes to help raise those funds, which were matched by UPenn. The work has resulted in two publications from the first grant. Zhang will present overall results at the 7th International Symposium on NBIA & Related Disorders which will be virtually from September 30 – October 3, 2020.

Zhang and his team focused on identifying the cause of neuronal damage in Beta-propeller Protein-Associated Neurodegeneration (BPAN) by examining the cell-cleaning process, called autophagy. They found that the process is disrupted because of a mutation in the WDR45 gene and its related protein.

In his research, Zhang generated mouse models with a knockout, or missing Wdr45 gene in the central nervous system. The team also studied a closely related gene, WDR45b, which causes another neurological disease, intellectual disability (ID). These mice performed poorly in learning and memory tests.

Through the study, Zhang and his team made an important observation on the defective autophagy process. In normal cells, an accumulation of waste in the cell is wrapped up in a little sac called an autophagosome. The autophagosome then transports the waste through the cell until it arrives at another sac, called the lysosome. The autophagosome fuses with the lysosome, and the waste is then broken down and recycled.

When Zhang’s team further examined the nerve cells lacking the WDR45 and WDR45b proteins, they noticed that the waste materials were picked up by autophagosomes, but the autophagosomes could not engage with the lysosomes for unloading and recycling. This disruption stopped them from working normally. To solve this problem, the researchers attempted to bypass the point where the disruption occurs. They found that by inhibiting modification of another protein, namely O-GlcNAcyclation of SNAP29, they could reverse the autophagy defects in cells with the WDR45/45B mutation.

Zhang believes this finding points to a promising avenue for treatment.


BPAN research provides insights into how iron accumulates in brain

Young Seo 

Dr. Young Seo, an assistant professor of nutritional biochemistry at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health in Ann Arbor, gives an update on her work which will be completed in August 2021.

October 2020

Ongoing BPAN research, funded by the NBIA Disorders Association, is producing new insights into iron accumulation and cell damage in individuals who have Beta-propeller protein-associated neurodegeneration.

BPAN is one of the most common NBIA disorders, which share a common characteristic of iron accumulation in the brain. Researchers are trying to understand what causes the iron to collect in BPAN and its impact on disease symptoms.

In September 2018, the NBIA Disorders Association awarded its first-ever early career grant for $150,000 to Dr. Young-Ah Seo, an assistant professor of nutritional biochemistry at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health in Ann Arbor. The two-year grant was to end in August 2020 but will be extended 12 months because of a research pause during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seo is investigating how a mutation in the WDR45 gene in BPAN individuals leads to iron accumulation and cellular damage. Her team was able to successfully generate a cell model of BPAN in which the WDR45 gene is deleted. This model showed significantly elevated iron levels, which suggests that the model mimics the condition seen in patients with BPAN.

Using this cell line, the team saw that the loss of WDR45 caused significant changes in the cellular pathways that regulate iron, which may underlie the reason iron accumulates in the brain of BPAN individuals. The team also found that the loss of WDR45 produces toxic reactive oxygen species, which are unstable molecules that can easily react and cause cell damage. This could contribute to the neurodegeneration seen in BPAN patients.

Taken together, the findings to date suggest that alterations in specific iron pathways increase total iron levels, promoting oxidative stress and cell damage in the BPAN cell model. Seo’s team is searching for molecular targets that can reduce iron levels in the cell model. Once the project is complete, it could point to potential therapies for BPAN.


BPAN study examines how mutated gene affects individuals

October 2020

A research team in the Netherlands is making progress in its study of how mutations in the WDR45 gene affect beta-propeller protein-associated neurodegeneration (BPAN).


Dr. Mario Mauthe from the University of Groningen, Netherlands, received a $45,000 grant from the NBIA Disorders Association and this update is the results from that work.

The team is being led by Dr. Mario Mauthe of the University of Groningen, who in 2018 received a $45,000 grant from the NBIA Disorders Association and is updating us on the results from that work.

BPAN is one of the most common NBIA disorders, which share a common characteristic of iron accumulation in the brain. Researchers are trying to understand what causes the iron to collect in BPAN and its impact on disease symptoms.

The researchers first investigated whether a WDR45 mutation caused disruption in a cellular process known as autophagy, in which cells recycle damaged materials and get rid of waste. They wondered if that could explain the iron accumulation observed in the brains of BPAN patients.

The team observed that the absence of the WDR45 gene does not disrupt the natural process of autophagy but that cells carrying the mutation have defects in the mitochondria, which are the energy-producing compartments within a cell. Because other NBIA patients have mitochondrial defects, it could be common to multiple NBIA diseases.

Mauthe’s team is investigating whether or not the defective gene causes issues with autophagy specifically targeting mitochondria. More research is needed to sustain their hypothesis and to understand why this defect occurs and whether treating it would be a valuable avenue for future therapies.


Research identifies several possible drug candidates for treating BPAN


Professor Robin Ketteler of University College London research update. Funds for the research grant were raised at the 2018 Million Dollar Bike Ride.

October 2020

Professor Robin Ketteler and his team at University College London have completed drug screening for potential BPAN therapies and identified several candidates that will advance to the next level of testing.

Ketteler’s team received a 2019 grant from the NBIA Disorders Association and recently reported the successful results. The BPAN drug-candidates can restore autophagy in BPAN cells, the natural process of cleaning up toxic damage in cells that is impaired in BPAN patients.

“Our results are a great starting point for further drug development,” says Ketteler. “These chemicals have characteristics of drugs, and they work in our neuronal cell model.”

The next steps are to ensure that these drug-like molecules also work in the more complex environment of the brain and can reach the brain regions that most need help.

To that end, the team plans to develop tissue models of BPAN using three-dimensional cell models.

Ketteler’s grant was made possible from funds raised by BPAN families for the 2018 Million Dollar Bike Ride held by the Orphan Disease Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Our organization writes the request for proposals and members of our Scientific & Medical Advisory Board review the applications. The University of Pennsylvania manages the grants and sends us copies of the scientific reports that are generated.

This work was done in collaboration with Professor Manju Kurian and Dr. Apostolos Papandreou, both from University College London. They had received a grant to study BPAN from our organization in 2014. (See article at https://www.nbiadisorders.org/images/newsletters/2018-apr-may-news.pdf, pg. 6).

Ketteler’s team built on the 2014 work, which produced a laboratory model of BPAN, using skin cells from BPAN patients and reprogramming those cells into neurons. Those cells were examined using state-of-the-art techniques to identify differences from cells in healthy people. The researchers learned that genes and proteins involved in iron metabolism are present in the patients’ cells at abnormal levels in comparison to healthy cells. This is in line with the disease’s characteristic buildup of iron in the brain. This finding encouraged the team to look more closely at the potential causes for such an increase in iron.

Ketteler is an expert in early stage drug discovery. “These findings are very exciting,” he said. “They present an opportunity to use our drug screening technologies to identify small molecule chemical compounds that might restore autophagy in these cells.”

Using innovative screening technologies involving sound to propel compounds onto the cells, Ketteler screened thousands of small molecule compounds for ones that might enhance autophagy in BPAN neurons. Interestingly, some of the compounds are part of a collection of FDA-approved drugs already being used for other diseases.

Ketteler is seeking additional funding to continue this research.


Team NBIA Disorders reaches $30,000 goal for MDBR

June 2020

Team NBIA did it again! For the fourth consecutive year, the NBIA Disorders Association successfully met the goal set by the Million Dollar Bike Ride and will have $30,000 matched, dollar for dollar, by the University of Pennsylvania’s Orphan Disease Center.

The team’s efforts will result in a $60,000 grant for BPAN research to be awarded later this year. BPAN, which stands for Beta-propeller protein-associated neurodegeneration, has emerged as the most common NBIA disorder. The Million Dollar Bike Ride has been a big source of support for BPAN research, a priority of the NBIA Disorders Association, bringing in $130,000 in matching money alone from UPenn over the past three years. With this match, the BPAN grants will exceed $320,000.

Despite a global pandemic, the 7th Annual Million Dollar Bike Ride carried on. Virtually, of course. Originally set to take place in Philadelphia on June 13, this year’s ride was held in communities around the world to help rare disorders while maintaining social distancing amid COVID-19.

Florio family 
Steve and Kristi Florio from Boalsburg, PA
rode their bikes at Penn State University
as part of the virtual MDBR.
Their daughter Lia has BPAN and enjoyed
riding along with her father.

In all, 712 cyclists from 39 states, Germany, Canada and Australia pledged to ride 20,567 miles for a variety of rare disorders. Virtual riders could participate with a bike ride in their neighborhoods or on stationary bikes raising funds until June 30.

Our team had 26 cyclists and 10 families that created fundraising pages in addition to our main Team NBIA Disorders page. A shout out to Roselle and Jeff Guzman of Alexandria, Virginia, who jumped in and raised $10,581 in less than two weeks! Their daughter, Salia-Rose, was recently diagnosed with BPAN.

Our sister organization, Hoffnungsbaum e.V., led by Markus Nielbock, also created a fundraising page so that BPAN families in Germany could participate; they raised $2,500

For six weeks starting in May, MDBR organizers held challenges each week to keep interest high and encourage participation. The Ftikas family of Cranbury, N.J., whose daughter Lexi Fae has BPAN, won week three, which was a fundraising challenge, by raising $1,940, the most funds raised from any team that week. On June 13 there was a thank-you presentation for all MDBR teams followed by a virtual spin class for registered riders where many did their pledged miles. Team NBIA Disorders had six cyclists participating in the class, while others took to their neighborhoods to ride that day.

Matt and Josie Biking 
Matt Ritzman and his daughter Josie who has PLAN
participate in the virtual 2020 Million Dollar Bike Ride
and raise $1550 for BPAN research. 

Avid cyclist and NBIA board Chair Matt Ritzman of Oakland, California, said he had always wanted to take part in the ride and was thrilled to do so this year with his wife, Julie, and daughter, Josie, who has NBIA.

“I planned our ride,” he said recently. “There’s a 27-mile loop near my house that’s absolutely beautiful. It’s not easy; there are lots of hills and I was carrying Josie (on a tandem bike). But she’s a fun passenger to have aboard. She loves the wind blowing in her face, and she talks a lot when we’re out. I think it’s one of her favorite activities.”

The amount raised each year “is truly remarkable considering how rare this disorder is,” Ritzman said. “I think it can be attributed to how much we support each other. My daughter has PLAN, not BPAN, so she won’t be directly impacted by the research, but I feel just as much joy when we make progress with any of these disorders.”

2020 MDBR Video


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