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High Levels of Frataxin Overexpression Lead to Mitochondrial and Cardiac Toxicity in Mouse Models

Cardiac dysfunction is the main cause of premature death in Friedreich ataxia (FA). Adeno-associated virus (AAV)-mediated gene therapy constitutes a promising approach for FA, as demonstrated in cardiac and neurological mouse models. While the minimal therapeutic level of FXN protein to be restored and biodistribution have recently been defined for the heart, it is unclear if FXN overexpression could be harmful. Indeed, depending on the vector delivery route and dose administered, the resulting FXN protein level could reach very high levels in the heart, cerebellum, or off-target organs such as the liver. The present study demonstrates safety of FXN cardiac overexpression up to 9-fold the normal endogenous level but significant toxicity to the mitochondria and heart above 20-fold. The authors show gradual severity with increasing FXN overexpression, ranging from subclinical cardiotoxicity to left ventricle dysfunction. This appears to be driven by impairment of the mitochondria respiratory chain and ultrastructure, which leads to cardiomyocyte subcellular disorganization, cell death, and fibrosis. Overall, this study underlines the need, during the development of gene therapy approaches, to consider appropriate vector expression level, long-term safety, and biomarkers to monitor such events.

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