Combinatorial therapeutic activation with heparin and AICAR stimulates additive effects on utrophin A expression in dystrophic muscles
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Upregulation of utrophin A is an attractive therapeutic strategy for treating Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). Over the years, several studies revealed that utrophin A is regulated by multiple transcriptional and post-transcriptional mechanisms, and that pharmacological modulation of these pathways stimulates utrophin A expression in dystrophic muscle. In particular, we recently showed that activation of p38 signaling causes an increase in the levels of utrophin A mRNAs and protein by decreasing the functional availability of the destabilizing RNA-binding protein called K-homology splicing regulatory protein, thereby resulting in increases in the stability of existing mRNAs. Here, we treated 6-week-old mdx mice for 4 weeks with the clinically used anticoagulant drug heparin known to activate p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase, and determined the impact of this pharmacological intervention on the dystrophic phenotype. Our results show that heparin treatment of mdx mice caused a significant ∼1.5- to 3-fold increase in utrophin A expression in diaphragm, extensor digitorum longus and tibialis anterior (TA) muscles. In agreement with these findings, heparin-treated diaphragm and TA muscle fibers showed an accumulation of utrophin A and β-dystroglycan along their sarcolemma and displayed improved morphology and structural integrity. Moreover, combinatorial drug treatment using both heparin and 5-amino-4-imidazolecarboxamide riboside (AICAR), the latter targeting 5' adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase and the transcriptional activation of utrophin A, caused an additive effect on utrophin A expression in dystrophic muscle. These findings establish that heparin is a relevant therapeutic agent for treating DMD, and illustrate that combinatorial treatment of heparin with AICAR may serve as an effective strategy to further increase utrophin A expression in dystrophic muscle via activation of distinct signaling pathways.