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Zhe Han

$2M NIH grant for treating disease linked to APOL1

Zhe Han

Children’s researcher Zhe Han, Ph.D., has received a $2 million award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study new approaches to treat kidney disease linked to inheriting Apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1) risk alleles. These risk alleles are particularly common among persons of recent African descent, and African Americans are disproportionately affected by the increased risk in kidney disease associated with these risk alleles.

Han, an associate professor in Children’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research, has established a leading research program that uses the fruit fly Drosophila as a model system to study how genetic mutations lead to disease.

Drosophila is a very basic model, but studies in the fly have led to major breakthroughs in understanding fundamental biological processes that underlie health and disease in humans,” Han says. “Since coming to Children’s National five years ago, I have focused a significant part of my research studying particular fly cells called nephrocytes that carry out many of the important roles of human kidney glomeruli, units within the kidney where blood is cleaned. Working together with clinician colleagues here, we have demonstrated that these Drosophila cells can be used to very efficiently study different types of renal disease caused by genetic mutations.”

The APOL1 risk alleles are genetic variants, termed G1 and G2, found almost exclusively in people of African ancestry and can lead to a four-fold higher risk of end-stage kidney disease, the last of five stages of chronic kidney disease. Exactly how inheriting these risk alleles increases the risk of kidney disease remains an unanswered question and the focus of considerable research activity. Han’s laboratory has developed a Drosophila model of APOL1-linked renal disease by producing the G1 and G2 forms of APOL1 specifically in nephrocytes. This led to defects in fly renal cells that strikingly overlap with disease-associated changes in experimental model and human kidney cells expressing APOL1 risk alleles.

The new NIH award will fund large-scale screening and functional testing to identify new treatment targets and new drugs to treat kidney disease linked to APOL1. Using a genetic screening approach, Han’s lab will identify nephrocyte “modifier” genes that interact with APOL1 proteins and counter the toxic effects of risk-associated G1 and G2 variants.

The team also will identify nephrocyte genes that are turned on or off in the presence of APOL1 risk alleles, and confirm that such “downstream” APOL1-regulated genes are similarly affected in experimental model and human kidney cells. The potential of the newly identified “modifier” and “downstream” genes to serve as targets of novel therapeutic interventions will be experimentally tested in fly nephrocytes in vivo and in cultured mammalian kidney cells.

Finally, the Drosophila model will be used as a drug screening platform for in vivo evaluation of positive “hits” from a cell-based APOL1 drug screening study in order to identify compounds that are most effective with the fewest side effects.

“These types of studies can be most efficiently performed in Drosophila,” Han adds.  “They take advantage of the speed and low cost of the fly model system and the amazing array of well-established, sophisticated genetic tools available for the fly. Using this model to elucidate human disease mechanisms and to identify new effective therapies has truly become my research passion.”

DNA strands on teal background

NUP160 genetic mutation linked to steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome

DNA strands on teal background

Mutations in the NUP160 gene, which encodes one protein component of the nuclear pore complex nucleoporin 160 kD, are implicated in steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome, an international team reports March 25, 2019, in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. Mutations in this gene have not been associated with steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome previously.

“Our findings indicate that NUP160 should be included in the gene panel used to diagnose steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome to identify additional patients with homozygous or compound-heterozygous NUP160 mutations,” says Zhe Han, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National and the study’s senior author.

The kidneys filter blood and ferry waste out of the body via urine. Nephrotic syndrome is a kidney disease caused by disruption of the glomerular filtration barrier, permitting a significant amount of protein to leak into the urine. While some types of nephrotic syndrome can be treated with steroids, the form of the disease that is triggered by genetic mutations does not respond to steroids.

The patient covered in the JASN article had experienced persistently high levels of protein in the urine (proteinuria) from the time she was 7. By age 10, she was admitted to a Shanghai hospital and underwent her first renal biopsy, which showed some kidney damage. Three years later, she had a second renal biopsy showing more pronounced kidney disease. Treatment with the steroid prednisone; cyclophosphamide, a chemotherapy drug; and tripterygium wilfordii glycoside, a traditional therapy, all failed. By age 15, the girl’s condition had worsened and she had end stage renal disease, the last of five stages of chronic kidney disease.

An older brother and older sister had steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome as well and both died from end stage kidney disease before reaching 17. When she was 16, the girl was able to receive a kidney transplant that saved her life.

Han learned about the family while presenting research findings in China. An attendee of his session said that he suspected an unknown mutation might be responsible for steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome in this family, and he invited Han to work in collaboration to solve the genetic mystery.

By conducting whole exome sequencing of surviving family members, the research team found that the mother and father each carry one mutated copy of NUP160 and one good copy. Their children inherited one mutated copy from either parent, the variant E803K from the father and the variant R1173X, which causes truncated proteins, from the mother. The woman (now 29) did not have any mutations in genes known to be associated with steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome.

Some 50 different genes that serve vital roles – including encoding components of the slit diaphragm, actin cytoskeleton proteins and nucleoporins, building blocks of the nuclear pore complex – can trigger steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome when mutated.

With dozens of possible suspects, they narrowed the list to six variant genes by analyzing minor allele frequency, mutation type, clinical characteristics and other factors.

The NUP160 gene is highly conserved from flies to humans. To prove that NUP160 was the true culprit, Dr. Han’s group silenced the Nup160 gene in nephrocytes, the filtration kidney cells in flies. Nephrocytes share molecular, cellular, structural and functional similarities with human podocytes. Without Nup160, nephrocytes had reduced nuclear volume, nuclear pore complex components were dispersed and nuclear lamin localization was irregular. Adult flies with silenced Nup160 lacked nephrocytes entirely and lived dramatically shorter lifespans.

Significantly, the dramatic structural and functional defects caused by silencing of fly Nup160 gene in nephrocytes could be completely rescued by expressing the wild-type human NUP160 gene, but not by expressing the human NUP160 gene carrying the E803K or R1173X mutation identified from the girl’s  family.

“This study identified new genetic mutations that could lead to steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome,” Han notes. “In addition, it demonstrates a highly efficient Drosophila-based disease variant functional study system. We call it the ‘Gene Replacement’ system since it replaces a fly gene with a human gene. By comparing the function of the wild-type human gene versus mutant alleles from patients, we could determine exactly how a specific mutation affects the function of a human gene in the context of relevant tissues or cell types. Because of the low cost and high efficiency of the Drosophila system, we can quickly provide much-needed functional data for novel disease-causing genetic variants using this approach.”

In addition to Han, Children’s co-authors include Co-Lead Author Feng Zhao, Co-Lead Author Jun-yi Zhu, Adam Richman, Yulong Fu and Wen Huang, all of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research; Nan Chen and Xiaoxia Pan, Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Medicine; and Cuili Yi, Xiaohua Ding, Si Wang, Ping Wang, Xiaojing Nie, Jun Huang, Yonghui Yang and Zihua Yu, all of Fuzhou Dongfang Hospital.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the Nature Science Foundation of Fujian Province of China, under grant 2015J01407; National Nature Science Foundation of China, under grant 81270766; Key Project of Social Development of Fujian Province of China, under grant 2013Y0072; and the National Institutes of Health, under grants DK098410 and HL134940.