Spinal muscular atrophy manifests in various degrees of severity which all have in common general muscle wasting and mobility impairment. Other body systems may be affected as well, particularly in early-onset forms. SMA is the most common genetic cause of infant death.
The term spinal muscular atrophy is used as both a specific term for the genetic disorder caused by deficient SMN, and a general label for a larger number of rare disorders having in common a genetic cause and slow progression of weakness without sensory impairment caused by disease of motor neurons in the spinal cord and brainstem – see spinal muscular atrophies for a comparison chart.
In SMA-affected individuals, the SMN1 gene is mutated in such a way that it is unable to correctly code the SMN protein - due to either a deletion occurring at exon 7 or to other point mutations (frequently resulting in the functional conversion of the SMN1 sequence into SMN2). All patients, however, retain at least one copy of the SMN2 gene (with most having 2-4 of them) which still code small amounts of SMN protein - around 10-20% of the normal level - allowing neurons to survive. In the long run, however, reduced availability of the SMN protein results in gradual death of motor neuron cells in the anterior horn of spinal cord and the brain. Consequently, motor muscles undergo progressive atrophy.
Muscles of lower extremities are usually affected first, followed by muscles of upper extremities, spine and neck and, in more severe cases, pulmonary and mastication muscles. Proximal muscles are always affected earlier and in a greater degree than distal.
The severity of SMA symptoms is broadly related to how well the remaining SMN2 genes can make up for the loss of SMN1. This is partly related to the number of SMN2 gene copies present on the chromosome. Whilst healthy individuals carry two SMN2 gene copies, SMA patients can have anything between 1 and 4 (or more) of them, with the greater the number of SMN2 copies the milder the disease severity. Thus, most SMA type I babies have one or two SMN2 copies; SMA II and III patients usually have at least three SMN2 copies; and SMA IV patients normally have at least four of them. However, the correlation between symptom severity and SMN2 copy number is not absolute and there seem to exist other factors impacting on the disease phenotype.
Spinal muscular atrophy is inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern, which means that the defective gene is located on an autosome, and two copies of the defective gene - one from each parent - are required to inherit the disorder: the parents do not need to be themselves affected. SMA seems to appear de novo (i.e., without any hereditary causes) in around 2-4% of cases.
Spinal muscular atrophy affects individuals of all races, unlike other well known autosomal recessive disorders like sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis which have significant differences in occurrence rate between races. The overall incidence of SMA, of all types and across all ethnic groups, is in the range of 1 per 10,000 individuals; the gene frequency is thus around 1:100, therefore, approximately one in 50 persons are carriers. There are no known health consequences of being a carrier, and presently the only way one may know to consider the possibility is if a relative is affected.
Finally, there are also reports of occurrence of SMA type I and SMA type II in the same sibship together; scientific explanation of this phenomena (intrafamilial variability) have been advanced by the Italian researcher of the CNR (The National Rersearch Council of Italy) Enrico Parano, who has suggested that these cases might be due to additional de novo deletion of the SMN gene, not involving the NAIP gene (94).
Prenatal screening is controversial, because of its cost on the one hand, and the severity of the disease on the other hand. Some researchers have concluded that population screening for SMA is not cost-effective, at a cost of $5 million per case averted in USA. Others conclude that SMA meets the criteria for screening programs and relevant testing should be offered to all couples.
Very severe SMA (type 0/I) can be sometimes evident before birth - reduction in fetal movement in the final months of pregnancy; else, it manifests within the first few weeks or months of life when abnormally low muscle tone is observed (the "floppy baby syndrome").
SMA manifests over a wide range of severity affecting infants through adults. The disease spectrum is variously divided into 3–5 types, in accordance either with the age of onset of symptoms or with the highest attained milestone of motor development.
The most commonly used classification is as follows:
The severe form manifests in the first months of life, usually with a quick and unexpected onset ("floppy baby syndrome"). Rapid motor neuron death causes inefficiency of the major bodily organs - especially of the respiratory system - and pneumonia-induced respiratory failure is the most frequent cause of death. Babies diagnosed with SMA type I do not generally live past two years of age, with death occurring as early as within weeks in the most severe cases (sometimes termed SMA type 0). With proper respiratory support, those with milder SMA type I phenotypes, which account for around 10% of cases, are known to live into adolescence and adulthood.
The intermediate form affects children who are never able to stand and walk but who are able to maintain a sitting position at least some time in their life. The onset of weakness is usually noticed some time between 6 and 18 months. The progress is known to vary greatly, some patients gradually grow weaker over time while others through careful maintenance avoid any progression. Body muscles are weakened, and the respiratory system is a major concern. Life expectancy is somewhat reduced but most SMA II patients live well into adulthood.
The juvenile form usually manifests after 18 months of age and describes patients who are able to walk without support at some time, although many later lose this ability. Victims may develop scoliosis (curvature of the spine). Respiratory involvement is less noticeable, and life expectancy is normal or near normal.
The adult-onset form (sometimes classified as a late-onset SMA type III) usually manifests after the third decade of life with gradual weakening of muscles – mainly affects proximal muscles of the extremities – frequently requiring the patient to use a wheelchair for mobility. Other complications are rare, and life expectancy is unaffected.
The most severe form of SMA type I is sometimes termed SMA type 0 (or severe infantile SMA) and is diagnosed in babies that are born so weak that they can survive only a few weeks even with intensive respiratory support. SMA type 0 should not be confused with SMARD1 which may have very similar symptoms and course but has a different genetic cause than SMA.
Development milestone attainment is commonly measured using a specially modified Hammersmith Functional Motor Scale.
The eponymous label Werdnig-Hoffmann disease (often misspelled with a single "n") refers to the earliest clinical descriptions of childhood SMA by Johann Hoffmann and Guido Werdnig. The eponymous term Kugelberg-Welander disease after Erik Klas Hendrik Kugelberg (1913-1983) and Lisa Welander (1909-2001), who distinguished SMA from muscular dystrophy. Rarely used Dubowitz disease (not to be confused with Dubowitz syndrome) is named after Victor Dubowitz, an English neurologist who authored several studies on the intermediate SMA phenotype.
There is no known cure for spinal muscular atrophy.
Care is symptomatic. Main areas of concern are as follows:
Orthopaedics — Weak spine muscles may lead to development of kyphosis, scoliosis and other orthopaedic problems. Spine fusion is sometimes performed in SMA I/II patients once they reach the age of 8-10 to relieve the pressure of a deformed spine on the lungs. SMA patients might also benefit greatly from various forms of physiotherapy and occupational therapy.
Respiratory care — Respiratory system requires utmost attention in SMA as once weakened it never fully recovers. Weakened pulmonary muscles in SMA type I/II patients can make breathing more difficult and pose a risk of hypoxiation, especially in sleep when muscles are more relaxed. Impaired cough reflex poses a constant risk of respiratory infection and pneumonia. Non-invasive ventilation (BiPAP) is frequently used and tracheostomy may be sometimes performed in more severe cases; both methods of ventilation prolong survival in a comparable degree, although tracheostomy prevents speech development.
Nutritional care — Difficulties in jaw opening, chewing and swallowing food might pose SMA patients at risk of malnutrition. A feeding tube can be necessary in SMA type I and more severe type II patients. Additionally, metabolic abnormalities resulting from SMA impair β-oxidation of fatty acids in muscles and can lead to organic acidemia and consequent muscle damage, especially when fasting. It is suggested that SMA patients, especially those with more severe forms of disease, reduce intake of fat and avoid prolonged fasting (i.e., eat more frequently than healthy people).
Mobility — Assistive technologies may help in managing movement and daily activity and greatly increase the quality of life.
Cardiology — Although heart is not a matter of routine concern, a link between SMA and certain heart conditions has been suggested.
Mental health — SMA children do not differ from the general population in their behaviour; their cognitive development can be slightly faster, and certain aspects of their intelligence are above the average. Despite their disability, SMA-affected people report high degree of satisfaction from life.
Generally, patients tend to deteriorate over time, but prognosis varies with the SMA type and disease progress which shows a great degree of individual variability.
The majority of children diagnosed with SMA type 0/I do not reach the age of 10, recurrent respiratory problems being the primary cause of morbidity. With proper care, milder SMA type I cases have lived into adulthood.
In SMA type II, the course of the disease is stable or slowly progressing and life expectancy is somewhat reduced compared to the healthy population, although patients usually live to become parents and grandparents.
SMA type III has normal or nearly normal life expectancy if standards of care are followed. Adult-onset SMA usually means only mobility impairment and does not affect life expectancy.
Since the underlying genetic mechanism of SMA was described in 1990, several therapeutic approaches have been proposed and investigated. Since a vast number of in vitro and animal modelling studies suggest that restoration of SMN levels reverts SMA symptoms, the majority of emerging therapies focus on increasing the availability of SMN protein to motor neurons.
Stem cell therapy — aims at offering protection to affected neurons through injection of specially prepared human stem cells in the spinal cord which subsequently develop into neuronal cells able to code full-length SMN protein, and is developed commercially in the context of SMA by California Stem Cell, USA. Experimental stem cell therapy is also offered to SMA patients - based on limited research and with unclear outcome - in private clinics in Brazil, China, Russia, Ukraine and Lebanon.
SMN2 activation — aims at increasing expression of the SMN2 gene and thus increasing the amount of full-length SMN available; compounds under investigation include:
Valproic acid — formerly used widely on experimental basis due to earlier research showing its effectiveness in vitro and in mouse models, in achievable concentrations demonstrated ineffective in SMA patients and even shown to aggravate SMA symptoms
Vorinostat (SAHA) — shown effective in mouse models, so far not trialled in SMA patients
Hydroxycarbamide (hydroxyurea) — shown effective in mouse models and subsequently commercially researched by Novo Nordisk, Denmark, but demonstrated no effect on SMA patients in subsequent clinical trials
Prolactin — recently shown effective in mouse models, so far not trialled in SMA patients
Salbutamol (albuterol) — demonstrated moderately effective in vitro and in two clinical trials involving SMA II/III patients
SMN2 alternative splicing modulation — targets the alternative splicing of the SMN2 gene so as to achieve a higher proportion of full-length SMN transcripts (sometimes called "gene conversion SMN2→SMN1"); compounds under investigation include:
Aclarubicin — shown effective in human cells from type I SMA patients, not trialled any further due to toxicity at required dosage
ISIS-SMNx — a proprietary molecule under development by Isis Pharmaceuticals, USA, and as of July 2012, posed for a phase II clinical trial; has Fast Track Designation in the USA and Orphan Medicinal Product Recommendation in the European Union
PTK-SMA1 — a proprietary small molecule splicing modulator of the tetracyclines group under development by Paratek Pharmaceutical, USA
RG3039 (formerly, Quinazoline495) — a proprietary quinazoline derivative under development by Repligen Corporation, USA, and as of July 2012, scheduled for phase II clinical trial; has an Orphan Drug Designation and Fast Track Designation in the USA and Orphan Medicinal Product Recommendation in the European Union
It has to be noted, though, that SMA therapeutics seem to be most effective when given immediately after birth, then losing their efficacy with the patient's age. This might be related to the variation in time of the needs for SMN protein by neuronal cells. However, this also poses a major therapeutic problem as hardly ever is SMA diagnosed at birth.
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