Autophagy in Niemann–Pick C disease is dependent upon Beclin-1 and responsive to lipid trafficking defects

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Niemann–Pick C (NPC) disease is an autosomal recessive lipid storage disorder characterized by a disruption of sphingolipid and cholesterol trafficking that produces cognitive impairment, ataxia and death, often in childhood. Most cases are caused by loss of function mutations in the Npc1 gene, which encodes a protein that localizes to late endosomes and functions in lipid sorting and vesicle trafficking. Here, we demonstrate that NPC1-deficient primary human fibroblasts, like npc1−/− mice fibroblasts, showed increased autophagy as evidenced by elevated LC3-II levels, numerous autophagic vacuoles and enhanced degradation of long-lived proteins. Autophagy because of NPC1 deficiency was associated with increased expression of Beclin-1 rather than activation of the Akt-mTOR-p70 S6K signaling pathway, and siRNA knockdown of Beclin-1 decreased long-lived protein degradation. Induction of cholesterol trafficking defects in wild-type fibroblasts by treatment with U18666A increased Beclin-1 and LC3-II expression, whereas treatment of NPC1-deficient fibroblasts with sphingolipid-lowering compound NB-DGJ failed to alter the expression of either Beclin-1 or LC3-II. Primary fibroblasts from patients with two other sphingolipid storage diseases, NPC2 deficiency and Sandhoff disease, characterized by sphingolipid trafficking defects also showed elevation in Beclin-1 and LC3-II levels. In contrast, Gaucher disease fibroblasts, which traffic sphingolipids normally, showed wild-type levels of Beclin-1 and LC3-II. Our data define a critical role for Beclin-1 in the activation of autophagy because of NPC1 deficiency, and reveal an unexpected role for lipid trafficking in the regulation of this pathway in patients with several sphingolipid storage diseases.

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