Inherited prion diseases are linked to mutations in the prion protein (PrP) gene, which favor conversion of PrP into a conformationally altered, pathogenic isoform. The cellular mechanism by which this process causes neurological dysfunction is unknown. It has been proposed that neuronal death can be triggered by accumulation of PrP in the cytosol because of impairment of proteasomal degradation of misfolded PrP molecules retrotranslocated from the endoplasmic reticulum (Ma, J., Wollmann, R., and Lindquist, S. (2002) Science 298, 1781-1785). To test whether this neurotoxic mechanism is operative in inherited prion diseases, we evaluated the effect of proteasome inhibitors on the viability of transfected N2a cells and primary neurons expressing mouse PrP homologues of the D178N and nine octapeptide mutations. We found that the inhibitors caused accumulation of an unglycosylated, aggregated form of PrP exclusively in transfected N2a expressing PrP from the cytomegalovirus promoter. This form contained an uncleaved signal peptide, indicating that it represented polypeptide chains that had failed to translocate into the ER lumen during synthesis, rather than retrogradely translocated PrP. Quantification of N2a viability in the presence of proteasome inhibitors demonstrated that accumulation of this form was not toxic. No evidence of cytosolic PrP was found in cerebellar granule neurons from transgenic mice expressing wild-type or mutant PrPs from the endogenous promoter, nor were these neurons more susceptible to proteasome inhibitor toxicity than neurons from PrP knock-out mice. Our analysis fails to confirm the previous observation that mislocation of PrP in the cytosol is neurotoxic, and argues against the hypothesis that perturbation of PrP metabolism through the proteasomal pathway plays a pathogenic role in prion diseases.
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