Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a disorder characterized by degeneration of the anterior horn cells of the spinal cord. The gene most highly associated with SMA is the survival motor neuron (SMN) gene. In this study, we present an analysis of messenger RNA (mRNA) expression of the SMN gene in peripheral blood mononuclear cells in normal subjects, SMA carriers and patients from 20 SMA families. We found at least 6-8 different transcripts of SMN gene formed by alternative splicing involving exons 3, 5 and 7. We compared transcripts from the different types of SMA and found no definite differences in transcript patterns and amounts. Normal subjects with the telomeric SMN (SMN(T)) gene only had variable splicing resulting in several transcripts, the most dominant being a transcript containing all coding regions. However, SMA patients with the centromeric SMN (SMN(C)) gene only had a higher degree of splice variation and tended to show little or no exon 7. These results demonstrate that SMN(T) and SMN(C) genes participate in alternative splicing phenomena. The different splicing patterns support the view that the SMN(T) gene is responsible for SMA disease. We also analyzed the transcripts from several tissues of an SMA fetus who had a homozygous SMN(T) gene deletion. Different splicing patterns were also found in these tissues, and were similar to the splicing pattern of leukocytes. We compared the major transcripts from exons 4 to 8 of both the SMN(T) and SMN(C) genes and found that the relative proportion varied among normal subjects, SMA carriers and patients. This approach could be used as a novel diagnostic method. We suggest that analyzing the mRNA expression of the SMN gene in peripheral blood mononuclear cells offers an apparently reliable technique for separating SMA patients, carriers, and normal individuals. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.
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