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Hum Mol Genet. 2014 Feb 1;23(3):637-47. doi: 10.1093/hmg/ddt450. Epub 2013 Sep 18.

Rapamycin drives selection against a pathogenic heteroplasmic mitochondrial DNA mutation.

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Department of Neurology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02215, USA.


Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) mutations cause a variety of mitochondrial disorders for which effective treatments are lacking. Emerging data indicate that selective mitochondrial degradation through autophagy (mitophagy) plays a critical role in mitochondrial quality control. Inhibition of mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) kinase activity can activate mitophagy. To test the hypothesis that enhancing mitophagy would drive selection against dysfunctional mitochondria harboring higher levels of mutations, thereby decreasing mutation levels over time, we examined the impact of rapamycin on mutation levels in a human cytoplasmic hybrid (cybrid) cell line expressing a heteroplasmic mtDNA G11778A mutation, the most common cause of Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy. Inhibition of mTORC1/S6 kinase signaling by rapamycin induced colocalization of mitochondria with autophagosomes, and resulted in a striking progressive decrease in levels of the G11778A mutation and partial restoration of ATP levels. Rapamycin-induced upregulation of mitophagy was confirmed by electron microscopic evidence of increased autophagic vacuoles containing mitochondria-like organelles. The decreased mutational burden was not due to rapamycin-induced cell death or mtDNA depletion, as there was no significant difference in cytotoxicity/apoptosis or mtDNA copy number between rapamycin and vehicle-treated cells. These data demonstrate the potential for pharmacological inhibition of mTOR kinase activity to activate mitophagy as a strategy to drive selection against a heteroplasmic mtDNA G11778A mutation and raise the exciting possibility that rapamycin may have therapeutic potential for the treatment of mitochondrial disorders associated with heteroplasmic mtDNA mutations, although further studies are needed to determine if a similar strategy will be effective for other mutations and other cell types.

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