passionless Droning about autism

Archive for February 2011

Hello friends –

I have decidedly mixed feelings on the genetic side of autism research; clearly genetics plays a part, but it does appear that autism has largely mirrored other complicated conditions in that what we thought we were getting when we cracked the genetic code has, for all practical purposes, failed to materialize.  To what extent our genetic makeup really plays a part in autism more than any other condition that is currently mystifying us, I don’t think we can say with much certainty; unless you want to count some.

To my mind, one particularly bright spot in the gene realm is the associations of the MET-C allele and an increased risk of an autism diagnosis.  At first glance, MET doesn’t seem like a big deal; lots of people have the MET-C mutation, in fact, nearly half of everyone has it.   But people with autism have it just a little more frequently, an observation that has been replicated many times.  But what is exciting is not only that the MET-C findings are robust, but they can also affect a lot of implicated systems in autism in biologically relevant ways.  From an ideological standpoint, the fissure in the autism community about research priorities regarding genetics versus environment, the MET-C studies are a superb example of just how much useful knowledge there is by starting at the genome and working upwards, and finding once we get there that the reality involves lots more than just genes.  There is something for everyone!

Getting to the big picture where we can appreciate the beautiful complexity takes a little bit of digging, but it’s worth the effort. 

Every now and again you’ll see a period piece about the forties, fifties or sixties, and you’ll get a glimpse of the female operator, someone who would take a call and literally connect two parties together; the gatekeeper. The operator’s actions were binary; either she connected the lines and the call went through, or she didn’t, and nothing happened.  Of course, one operator couldn’t connect you to any other phone, but participated in groupings of phones with some logical or functional structure.  Ultimately, the operators were the enabler of communication, physically putting two entities into contact to perform whatever business they had with each other. 

Within our bodies, tyrosine kinases  are enzymes responsible transferring phosphate to proteins; a chemical exchange critical towards a great number of cellular functions, and in a sense, the tyrosine kinases act as cellular operators, helping implement a physical swap of chemicals that ultimately set in motion a great number of processes.  Some very rudimentary cellular functions are initiated by the tyrosine kinases; for example, cell division, which is why mutated kinases can lead to the generation of tumors; i.e., the signaling for cell division gets turned on, and never gets turned off.  Inhibiting tyrosine kinases is the mechanism of action for some drugs that target cancer.  

The MET gene is responsible for creating the MET receptor tyrosine kinase.  This particular receptor is involved in lots of processes that are of great interest to autism; the MET receptor is expressed heavily during embryogenesis in the brain, has immune modulating capacities, and is associated with wound healing, and is particularly implicated in repair of the gastro-intestinal track. 

Kinases don’t just fire away, shuttling phosphates around any old time, they must be activated by a triggering molecule, or a ligand.  There is only one known ligand for the MET receptor; hepatocyte growth factor, or HGF (also sometimes referred to as HGF/SF, or hepatocyte growth factor/scatter factor).  We’ll get to why we bother worrying about HGF a little later on, but it is important to keep in mind that without HGF, the functions affected by the MET-C receptor, early brain development, immune modulating, and wound repair cannot be achieved. 

So what about autism, and why is it a beautiful illustration of complexity?  Walking our way through the MET findings in autism is a rewarding task; it is one of the few instances I’ve seen where the glimpses of relevance gleaned from straight genetic studies have been incrementally built upon to achieve a much grander understanding of autism.  This is the kind of thing that I think a lot of people who dismiss the utility of genetic studies are missing; genetics are only the first piece of the puzzle, it doesn’t only implicate genes, it tells us about the processes and the proteins disturbed in autism; and with that knowledge, we can perform targeted analysis for environmental participants.

The first clues about MET involvement with autism came in 2006, when A genetic variant that disrupts MET transcription is associated with autism (full paper) was published.  The abstract is longish, but here is a snipet:

MET signaling participates in neocortical and cerebellar growth and maturation, immune function, and gastrointestinal repair, consistent with reported medical complications in some children with autism. Here, we show genetic association (P = 0.0005) of a common C allele in the promoter region of the MET gene in 204 autism families. The allelic association at this MET variant was confirmed in a replication sample of 539 autism families (P = 0.001) and in the combined sample (P = 0.000005). Multiplex families, in which more than one child has autism, exhibited the strongest allelic association (P = 0.000007).

I appreciate the pleiotropic nature of what we are seeing here, a gene that is involved with brain growth and maturation, immune function, and GI repair.  The association in ‘multiplex’ (i.e., families with more than one child with autism) was very, very strong.  Even still, this was a pretty short paper, and it was all genetics.  Coolness factor:  3.

Neater studies were on the horizon shortly thereafter, a year later, some of the same group looked for expression of MET in post mortem brain tissue and found significantly decreased levels of MET protein in Disruption of cerebral cortex MET signaling in autism spectrum disorder

MET protein levels were significantly decreased in ASD cases compared with control subjects. This was accompanied in ASD brains by increased messenger RNA expression for proteins involved in regulating MET signaling activity. Analyses of coexpression of MET and HGF demonstrated a positive correlation in control subjects that was disrupted in ASD cases.

This is a nice follow up; lots of times a genetic study might suggest a hit, but we really don’t even know how such a genetic change might manifest physiologically, like having a jigsaw puzzle of solid black and finding two pieces that fit together.  In those instances, we can’t really go looking for different levels of the protein, so there you are.  In this case, the authors found an allele worth investigating, and then went looking to see if relevant proteins were altered in the population, and in the CNS no less!  Not only that, but they also looked at the initiating end of the process, the ligand, HGF, and found abnormalities.  Good stuff.  Unfortunately, I haven’t found myself a copy of this paper yet, but the fact that other proteins in the pathway were altered is another line of evidence that something is amiss.  I’ve begun to appreciate the fact that I have spent a long time under appreciating the interconnectedness of biological systems; you aren’t going to have a disturbance in one system without altering the way upstream, and downstream processes are working; so  the fact that we see other proteins, those related to MET functions, modified, makes beautiful sense.  Coolness factor: 5.

Likely because of the mixed findings of skewed proteins in the MET pathway (?), the next study in line is, Genetic Evidence Implicating Multiple Genes in the MET Receptor Tyrosine Kinase Pathway in Autism Spectrum Disorder (full paper available).  Here’s the abstract:

A functional promoter variant of the gene encoding the MET receptor tyrosine kinase alters SP1 and SUB1 transcription factor binding, and is associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Recent analyses of postmortem cerebral cortex from ASD patients revealed altered expression of MET protein and three transcripts encoding proteins that regulate MET signaling, hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), urokinase plasminogen activator receptor (PLAUR) and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (SERPINE1). To address potential risk conferred by multiple genes in the MET signaling pathway, we screened all exons and 5 promoter regions for variants in the five genes encoding proteins that regulate MET expression and activity. Identified variants were genotyped in 664 families (2,712 individuals including 1,228 with ASD) and 312 unrelated controls. Replicating our initial findings, family-based association test (FBAT) analyses demonstrated that the MET promoter variant rs1858830 C allele was associated with ASD in 101 new families (P=0.033). Two other genes in the MET signaling pathway also may confer risk. A haplotype of the SERPINE1 gene exhibited significant association. In addition, the PLAUR promoter variant rs344781 T allele was associated with ASD by both FBAT (P=0.006) and case-control analyses (P=0.007). The PLAUR promoter rs344781 relative risk was 1.93 (95% Confidence Interval [CI]: 1.12−3.31) for genotype TT and 2.42 (95% CI: 1.38−4.25) for genotype CT compared to genotype CC. Gene-gene interaction analyses suggested a significant interaction between MET and PLAUR. These data further support our hypothesis that genetic susceptibility impacting multiple components of the MET signaling pathway contributes to ASD risk.


We’ve got two new genes added to the mix, PLAUR and SERPINE.  The juicy part here is that the authors didn’t look for these variants at random, but performed a targeted search; they knew that the proteins encoded by these genes interact with either MET receptor function or HGF, and they also had found altered expression of these genes in the CNS study.  From the Introduction:

The hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) gene encodes the activating ligand for the MET receptor. HGF is translated as an inactive precursor protein that requires cleavage for efficient binding to the MET receptor [Lokker et al 1992]. The activating cleavage of HGF is achieved most efficiently by the enzyme plasminogen activator (urokinase-type; uPA; gene symbol: PLAU) under conditions in which uPA binds to its receptor, the urokinase plasminogen activator receptor (uPAR; gene symbol: PLAUR). Activating cleavage of HGF can be suppressed by the plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1; gene symbol: SERPINE1). Together, these proteins regulate the activity of MET receptor tyrosine kinase signaling, and our recent microarray analyses of postmortem temporal lobe of individuals with ASD indicate that disrupted MET signaling may be common to ASD pathophysiology [Campbell et al 2007]. For example, we found that there is increased expression of the HGF, PLAUR and SERPINE1 transcripts in ASD in postmortem cerebral cortex. The observation of disrupted expression suggests a general dysfunction of MET signaling in the cerebral cortex of individuals with ASD.

The proteins encoded by PLAUR and SERPINE were also found increased in the expression study; a finding further supported by the genetic study here.  The really grand slice here is that the SERPINE protein suppresses cleavage of HGF; essentially another way MET function can be affected, from a disturbance upstream of HGF binding.   In other words, more SERPINE (possibly as a result of a ‘promoter allele’) would result in less MET receptor activation because the SERPINE interferes with the cleavage of HGF, and thus, another pathway to reduced MET activation.  In a finding that seems 20/20 with hindsight, a functional promoter of the SERPINE gene was found to increase autism risk; i.e., if you have more SERPINE, you get less functional HGF, and therefore less triggering of the MET receptor.  This is cool and begins a portrait of the complexity; it shows how the effect of reduced MET functionality can come from multiple drivers; the reduced MET allele, or, the promoter SERPINE allele, and what’s more, having both is an even bigger risk; the authors are describing a synergy of low penetrance genes.

From the discussion section of the paper:

Beyond genetic susceptibility, the functional integrity of the MET signaling system also is sensitive to environmental factors. This concept is supported by bioinformatics analyses that identified PLAUR, SERPINE1 and HGF as genes active in immune response regulation, sensitive to environmental exposures, and within chromosomal regions previously implicated in ASD linkage studies [Herbert et al 2006]. Moreover, a recent cell biological study shows that chemically diverse toxicants reduce the expression of MET in oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, a result that is interpreted as the convergence of toxicant effects on oxidative status and the MET-regulating Fyn/c-Cbl pathway

Here are links to the Hebert paper, Autism and environmental genomics, and the Li paper, Chemically Diverse Toxicants Converge on Fyn and c-Cbl to Disrupt Precursor Cell Function.  What is neat here is that we are starting to be able to see a pathway of genes, and resultant proteins, that can effect disparate systems.   I believe that there is a subset of acupuncture, acupressure that relies on more knuckles than needles, and while the science on accu* based therapies isn’t very good, it does occur to me that in a sense, our lattice work of HGF-PLAUR-SERPINE proteins that participate in the MET-C process are pressure points in a delicate system, push a little bit and things will bend down the line accordingly.  It also exemplifies why I am offended by highly negative attitudes on genetic studies held by people who believe in a non trivial, environmentally mediated increase in the rates of autism; we are approaching a nearly impossible to overturn reality that genes we know to be associated with autism are particularly sensitive to interference from environmental agents, and participate in immune function.  That is important information.  Coolness factor 8.  First glimpse of beauty factor: 10.

Next up we have Dynamic gene and protein expression patterns of the autism-associated Met receptor tyrosine kinase in the developing mouse forebrain (full paper). 

The establishment of appropriate neural circuitry depends upon the coordination of multiple developmental events across space and time. These events include proliferation, migration, differentiation, and survival – all of which can be mediated by hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) signaling through the Met receptor tyrosine kinase. We previously found a functional promoter variant of the MET gene to be associated with autism spectrum disorder, suggesting that forebrain circuits governing social and emotional function may be especially vulnerable to developmental disruptions in HGF/Met signaling. However, little is known about the spatiotemporal distribution of Met expression in the forebrain during the development of such circuits. To advance our understanding of the neurodevelopmental influences of Met activation, we employed complementary Western blotting, in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry to comprehensively map Met transcript and protein expression throughout perinatal and postnatal development of the mouse forebrain. Our studies reveal complex and dynamic spatiotemporal patterns of expression during this period. Spatially, Met transcript is localized primarily to specific populations of projection neurons within the neocortex and in structures of the limbic system, including the amygdala, hippocampus and septum. Met protein appears to be principally located in axon tracts. Temporally, peak expression of transcript and protein occurs during the second postnatal week. This period is characterized by extensive neurite outgrowth and synaptogenesis, supporting a role for the receptor in these processes. Collectively, these data suggest that Met signaling may be necessary for the appropriate wiring of forebrain circuits with particular relevance to social and emotional dimensions of behavior.

Coooooool.   Here we touch on the complexity of brain formation, all the little things that need to go exactly right, and how MET might play a role in that incredibly complicated dance.  Even better, a mouse model is used to gain an understanding of where and when peak expression of MET proteins occur, a period of significant changes to neural structures and the formation of synapses, the physical structures that enable thought.   This is a dense paper, too dense to get deeply into blockquoting for this posting, but there are some parts that deserve notice, namely, documentation of spatially localized MET expression in brain areas associated with social behaviors and some fine grained information on the specific parts of synapse formation that utilize MET.    Coolness factor: 8.  Complexity Factor: 12.

Here is a paper that a lot of people that play skeptics on the Internet ought to hate, Distinct genetic risk based on association of MET in families with co-occurring autism and gastrointestinal conditions.  (full paper)

In the entire 214-family sample, the MET rs1858830 C allele was associated with both autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions. Stratification by the presence of gastrointestinal conditions revealed that the MET C allele was associated with both autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions in 118 families containing at least 1 child with co-occurring autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions. In contrast, there was no association of the MET polymorphism with autism spectrum disorder in the 96 families lacking a child with co-occurring autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions. chi(2) analyses of MET rs1858830 genotypes indicated over-representation of the C allele in individuals with co-occurring autism spectrum disorder and gastrointestinal conditions compared with non-autism spectrum disorder siblings, parents, and unrelated controls.

There is a lot of caution in this paper, but the nice part is that there are biologically plausible mechanisms by which a reduction in MET could snowball into problems in the gastro-intestinal track.

In the gastrointestinal system, MET signaling modulates intestinal epithelial cell proliferation, and thus acts as a critical factor in intestinal wound healing. For example, activation of MET signaling via application of exogenous hepatocyte growth factor has been shown to reduce the effects of experimentally induced colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and diarrhea.

Pushing on the other end of the balloon, increasing MET signaling, has been shown to help GI problems; no less than evidence that a genetic change associated with autism has biologically plausible mechanisms by which GI problems would be more prevalent. In fact, unless our findings of MET alleles are in error, or our clinical findings of the effects of HGF are spurious, it is absolutely expected. There is also a section with the startlingly simple, and simultaneously great idea of why findings like these might be useful markers for phenotypic categorization in studies in the future; i.e., to discern the prevalence of GI problems in autism, it might, for example, make sense to design that study to take presence or absence of MET alleles into consideration.  Nice.  Coolness Factor: 7.  Insidiousness factor: 9.

Here’s another one that found associations with MET and social behavior, and GI disturbances again.  Association of MET with social and communication phenotypes in individuals with autism spectrum disorder

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder diagnosed by impairments in social interaction, communication, and behavioral flexibility. Autism is highly heritable, but it is not known whether a genetic risk factor contributes to all three core domains of the disorder or autism results from the confluence of multiple genetic risk factors for each domain. We and others reported previously association of variants in the gene encoding the MET receptor tyrosine kinase in five independent samples. We further described enriched association of the MET promoter variant rs1858830 C allele in families with co-occurring autism and gastrointestinal conditions. To test the contribution of this functional MET promoter variant to the domains of autism, we analyzed its association with quantitative scores derived from three instruments used to diagnose and describe autism phenotypes: the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), and both the parent and the teacher report forms of the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS). In 748 individuals from 367 families, the transmission of the MET C allele from parent to child was consistently associated with both social and communication phenotypes of autism. Stratification by gastrointestinal conditions revealed a similar pattern of association with both social and communication phenotypes in 242 individuals with autism from 118 families with co-occurring gastrointestinal conditions, but a lack of association with any domain in 181 individuals from 96 families with ASD and no co-occurring gastrointestinal condition. These data indicate that the MET C allele influences at least two of the three domains of the autism triad.

Really sort of plain, but very nice to see the GI component validated in another data set.  Coolness factor 5.

Then a few months ago, Prenatal polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon exposure leads to behavioral deficits and downregulation of receptor tyrosine kinase, MET was released, an uber cool showcase of the autism bigfoot, the often regaled, only very rarely documented, gene/environment interaction. 

Gene by environment interactions (G × E) are thought to underlie neurodevelopmental disorder, etiology, neurodegenerative disorders, including the multiple forms of autism spectrum disorder. However, there is limited biological information, indicating an interaction between specific genes and environmental components. The present study focuses on a major component of airborne pollutants, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), such as benzo(a)pyrene [B(a)P], which negatively impacts cognitive development in children who have been exposed in utero. In our study, prenatal exposure of Cpr(lox/lox) timed-pregnant dams to B(a)P (0, 150, 300, and 600 μg/kg body weight via oral gavage) on embryonic day (E14-E17) consistent with our susceptibility-exposure paradigm was combined with the analysis of a replicated autism risk gene, the receptor tyrosine kinase, Met. The results demonstrate a dose-dependent increase in B(a)P metabolite generation in B(a)P-exposed Cpr(lox/lox) offspring. Additionally, a sustained persistence of hydroxy metabolites during the onset of synapse formation was noted, corresponding to the peak of Met expression. Prenatal B(a)P exposure also downregulated Met RNA and protein levels and dysregulated normal temporal patterns of expression during synaptogenesis. Consistent with these data, transcriptional cell-based assays demonstrated that B(a)P exposure directly reduces human MET promoter activity. Furthermore, a functional readout of in utero B(a)P exposure showed a robust reduction in novel object discrimination in B(a)P-exposed Cpr(lox/lox) offspring. These results confirm the notion that common pollutants, such as the PAH B(a)P, can have a direct negative impact on the regulated developmental expression of an autism risk gene with associated negative behavioral learning and memory outcomes.

Oh snap.  A common pollutant (well, common in the last few decades anyways), is shown to interact with MET in a dose dependent fashion to reduce protein expression in the brain during embryonic development and cause ‘a robust reduction in novel object discrimination’. (Ouch)  This is an example of just what we mentioned above, referenced Herbert, concerning the possibility of MET as a gene sensitive to ‘environmental exposures’.  Indeed.  From the discussions section:

The results from the present study demonstrate that the transcription and developmental expression patterns of a replicated ASD risk gene, MET, are highly sensitive to a common PAH pollutant. In utero exposure to B(a)P produces an oxidative milieu of B(a)P metabolites in offspring during a key postnatal period of synapse development, providing evidence that environmental exposure creates a sustained cerebral cortical burden that likely contributes to an increased oxidative load. Oxidative stressors in the form of metabolites would be expected to negatively impact gene expression (Kerzee and Ramos 2000) and, more specifically, receptor tyrosine kinase function, including Met (Li et al. 2007). These data suggest that B(a)P-induced exposure would impact the expression of key neurodevelopmental genes, including Met. Additionally, the predominance of the 3-OH and 9-OH metabolites places a sustained burden in the brain because of the potential for further oxidization to form B(a)P quinones (McCallister et al. 2008, Hood et al. 2000, Brown et al. 2007) which undergo redox cycling to generate reactive oxygen species (Kerzee and Ramos 2000, Bolton et al., 2000).


In conclusion, specific developmental events such as glutamatergic excitatory synapse formation and maturation may be particularly vulnerable to G x E effects that impact regulatory and signaling proteins involved in this process. While we do not suggest that the current study reflects specific defects related to a complex clinical condition such as the ASDs, current molecular, behavioral and functional imaging data are converging on the concept that the ASDs are a manifestation of altered local and long-distance cortical connectivity (Geschwind et al. 2007, Bill and Geschwind 2009, Geschwind and Levitt, 2007, Levitt and Campbell 2009). Also, Met and other related signaling components of this receptor tyrosine kinase pathway have been implicated in both syndromic and idiopathic disorders where the ASDs are diagnosed at a high rate. In combination with risk alleles in key genes, the in utero exposure to PAHs such as B(a)P, which results in both a reduction in absolute levels and the mistiming of peak Met expression, could drive the system toward a pathophysiological threshold that neither genetic risk nor environmental factors could produce individually. The present study focused on the neocortex, but given the highly restricted spatial and temporal expression of Met in mouse limbic circuits associated with social-emotional development and cognition (Judson et al. 2009), it is likely that perturbations occur throughout these key circuits, including in the hippocampus.

Really cool stuff; particularly the finding that developmental, in utero exposure was capable of driving abnormal protein expression well after birth. This is the best of both sides of the genetics versus environment conundrum; the kind of finding that sheds light on how environmental pollutants could be participating in increasing the number of children with autism by interacting with genetically susceptible children.  But what I love about this is that it is the death knell of the fairytale of a static rate, or near static rate of autism, just having the genes or the exposure isn’t enough; instead, the interaction of alleles and timed exposure ‘could drive the system toward a pathophysiolical threshold that neither genetic risk nor environmental factors could produce individually’.  I think there are some more findings coming from this group soon that might be exciting, or terrifying, depending on how you see it.  (or both).  Coolness factor: 99.   

So what have we learned and just how cool is it?

1)      The MET receptor enables some types of cellular signaling that have relevance to the autism community including synapse formation, immune modulation, and gastro intestinal function.  The ligand, or trigger of the MET receptor is HGF.

2)      Certain alleles of the MET gene that result in decreased expression are more common in children with autism than people without autism.

3)      Consistent with findings of increased prevalence of MET alleles, MET protein expression was found to be decreased in brain tissue from people with autism.  Other, related proteins, HGF, PLAUR, and SERPINE were also found to be disturbed.

4)      Following up on the differential findings of SERPINE and PLAUR, genetic studies found gene to gene interactions between the MET allele and alleles involved with production of SERPINE and PLAUR. Some of the proteins in question are known to be particularly vulnerable to environmental interference.

5)      Animal models tell us that MET is heavily expressed in many areas of the mammalian brain during prenatal and postnatal development, and we gain insight into the spatial and temporal expression of MET during the intricate dance of brain formation.

6)      Two studies add evidence that the one function of decreased MET expression, GI disturbances, are indeed found with greater consistency within children with autism and the MET allele.  This should be a relatively unsurprising finding considering what we know about MET and children with autism.

7)      Finally, a portrait of genetic / environmental interactions capable of disturbing physiology and behavior in ways consistent with findings in autism is rendered using an agent that is the product of the automobile age and already associated with decreased cognitive skills for groups with the highest gestational exposure.

It should be noted that this is just a slice of the MET papers out there in the autism realm; they all shared one or more authors, I picked them because they seem to show a nice progression of knowledge, and incremental approach towards learning more.   There is a lof more to learn, in particular, I think that the immune modulating effects of reduced expression would be an interesting subject, but one that will have to wait for another posting. 

–  pD


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