The overt heterogeneity in age at onset and disease severity in Friedreich ataxia (FRDA) is explained partly by the length of the GAA-TR, in which shorter repeats correlate with milder disease. Evidence of variegated silencing in FRDA suggests that patients with shorter repeats retain a significant proportion of cells with FXN genes that have escaped GAA-TR expansion-induced silencing, explaining the less severe frataxin deficiency in this subpopulation. In ex vivo experiments, the proportion of spared cells negatively correlates with GAA-TR length until it plateaus at 500 triplets, an indication that the maximal number of silenced cells has been reached. This study assessed whether an analogous ceiling effect occurs in severity of clinical features of FRDA by analyzing clinical outcome data. The FRDA Clinical Outcome Measures Study database was used for a cross-sectional analysis of 1,000 patients with FRDA. Frataxin levels were determined by lateral flow immunoassays. The length of the GAA-TR in this cohort predicted frataxin level (R2 = 0.38, p < 0.0001) and age at onset (R2 = 0.46, p < 0.0001) but only with GAA-TRs with ≤700 triplets. Age and disease duration predicted performance on clinical outcome measures, and such predictions in linear regression models statistically improved in the subcohort of patients with >700 GAA triplets. The prevalence of cardiomyopathy and scoliosis increased as GAA-TR length increased up to 700 GAA triplets where prevalence plateaued. These data suggest that there is a ceiling effect on the clinical consequences of GAA-TR length in FRDA, as would be predicted by variegated silencing. Patients with GAA-TRs of >700 triplets represent a subgroup in which the severity of clinical manifestations based on GAA-TR length have reached maximal levels and therefore display limited clinical variability in disease progression.

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