Friedreich ataxia (FA), the most common inherited ataxia, is caused by transcriptional silencing of the nuclear FXN gene, encoding the essential mitochondrial protein frataxin. Currently, there is no approved therapy for this fatal disorder. Gene silencing in FA is due to hyperexpansion of the triplet repeat sequence GAA·TTC in the first intron of the FXN gene, which results in chromatin histone modifications consistent with heterochromatin formation. Frataxin is involved in mitochondrial iron homeostasis and the assembly and transfer of iron-sulfur clusters to various mitochondrial enzymes and components of the electron transport chain. Frataxin insufficiency leads to progressive spinocerebellar neurodegeneration, causing symptoms of gait and limb ataxia, slurred speech, muscle weakness, sensory loss, and cardiomyopathy in many patients that may cause death in early adulthood. Numerous approaches are being taken to find a treatment for FA, including excision or correction of the repeats by genome engineering methods, gene activation with small molecules or artificial transcription factors, delivery of frataxin to affected cells by protein replacement therapy, gene therapy, or small molecules to increase frataxin protein levels, and therapies aimed at countering the cellular consequences of reduced frataxin. This review will summarize the mechanisms involved in repeat-mediated gene silencing and recent efforts aimed at development of therapeutics.
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