Causes of clinical variability in Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophies and implications for exon skipping therapies

Eric P. Hoffman

School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences; Binghamton University, State University of New York, Binghamton NY, USA

Becker muscular dystrophy is caused by mutations in the DMD gene that permit significant residual dystrophin protein expression in patient muscle. This is in contrast to DMD gene mutations in Duchenne muscular dystrophy where little or no dystrophin is produced (typically < 3% normal levels). Clinically, Becker muscular dystrophy is extremely variable, from slightly milder than DMD, to asymptomatic hyperCKemia at old age. The factors driving clinical variability in Becker muscular dystrophy have now been studied in some depth, and the findings are likely highly relevant to anticipated clinical findings in exon skipping therapy in DMD. The specific mutations in Becker dystrophy play an important role, and clinical variability is less with high frequency mutations (deletions exons 45-47, 45-48). The percentage of dystrophin content in patient muscle is not well-correlated with clinical findings. Muscle MRI findings (degree of fibrofatty replacement) are very well-correlated with the degree of patient disability, regardless of mutation or muscle dystrophin content. Taken together, data to date suggest that the main determinant driving clinical disability in Becker dystrophy patients is the degree of fibrofatty replacement in muscle. Thus, as with DMD, DMD gene mutations and resulting dystrophin protein abnormalities initiate the disease process, but downstream tissue pathophysiology plays a dominant role in disease progression. Factors influencing the age-dependent rate of fibrofatty replacement of muscles are responsible for much of the clinical variability seen in Becker dystrophy , as well as Duchenne dystrophy. These fibrosis-related factors include genetic modifiers, degree of muscle inflammation, and induction of microRNAs in muscle that bind to dystrophin mRNA and down-regulate dystrophin protein content in patient muscle. Studies to date regarding clinical variability in Becker dystrophy suggest that exon skipping therapy in DMD may show variable efficacy from patient to patient. 

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