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Expanding view of phenotype and oxidative stress in Friedreich's ataxia patients with and without idebone.

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  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Medicine
  • Musicology


Friedreich's ataxia (FRDA), the most common autosomal recessive ataxia, is characterised by progressive ataxia with dysarthria of speech, loss of deep-tendon reflexes, impaired vibratory and proprioceptive sensations and corticospinal weakness with a Babinski's sign. Patients eventually also develop kyphoscoliosis, cardiomyopathy and diabetes mellitus. The disease is a GAA repeat disorder resulting in severely reduced levels of frataxin, with secondary increased sensitivity to oxidative stress. The anti-oxidative drug, idebenone, is effective against FRDA-associated cardiomyopathy. We provide detailed clinical, electrophysiological and biochemical data from 20 genetically confirmed FRDA patients and have analysed the relationship between phenotype, genotype and malondialdehyde (MDA), which is a marker of superoxide formation. We assessed the effects of idebenone biochemically by measuring blood MDA and clinically by serial measurements of the International Cooperative Ataxia Rating Scale (ICARS). The GAA repeat length influenced the age at onset (p <0.001), the severity of ataxia (p = 0.02), the presence of cardiomyopathy (p = 0.04) and of low-frequency hearing loss (p = 0.009). Multilinear regression analysis showed (p = 0.006) that ICARS was dependent on the two variables of disease duration (p = 0.01) and size of the GAA expansion (p = 0.02). We found no correlation to bilateral palpebral ptosis, visual impairment, diabetes mellitus or skeletal deformities, all of which appear to be signs of disease progression rather than severity. We discuss more thoroughly two underrecognised clinical findings: palpebral ptosis and GAA length-dependent low-frequency hearing loss. The average ICARS remained unchanged in 10 patients for whom follow-up on treatment was available (mean 2.9 years), whereas most patients treated with idebenone reported an improvement in dysarthria (63%), hand dexterity (58%) and fatigue (47%) after taking the drug for several weeks or months. Oxidative stress analysis showed an unexpected increase in blood MDA levels in patients on idebenone (p = 0.04), and we discuss the putative underlying mechanism for this result, which could then explain the unique efficacy of idebenone in treating the FRDA-associated cardiomyopathy, as opposed to other antioxidative drugs. Indeed, idebenone is not only a powerful stimulator of complexes II and III of the respiratory chain, but also an inhibitor of complex I activity, then promoting superoxide formation. Our preliminary clinical observations are the first to date supporting an effect of idebenone in delaying neurological worsening. Our MDA results point to the dual effect of idebenone on oxidative stress and to the need for controlled studies to assess its potential toxicity at high doses on the one hand, and to revisit the exact mechanisms underlying the physiopathology of Friedreich's ataxia on the other hand, while recent reports suggest non-oxidative pathophysiology of the disease.

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