Friedreich ataxia is an autosomal recessive neurodegenerative disease associated with a high diabetes prevalence. No treatment is available to prevent or delay disease progression. Friedreich ataxia is caused by intronic GAA trinucleotide repeat expansions in the frataxin-encoding FXN gene that reduce frataxin expression, impair iron-sulfur cluster biogenesis, cause oxidative stress, and result in mitochondrial dysfunction and apoptosis. Here we examined the metabolic, neuroprotective, and frataxin-inducing effects of glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) analogs in in vivo and in vitro models and in patients with Friedreich ataxia. The GLP-1 analog exenatide improved glucose homeostasis of frataxin-deficient mice through enhanced insulin content and secretion in pancreatic β cells. Exenatide induced frataxin and iron-sulfur cluster–containing proteins in β cells and brain and was protective to sensory neurons in dorsal root ganglia. GLP-1 analogs also induced frataxin expression, reduced oxidative stress, and improved mitochondrial function in Friedreich ataxia patients’ induced pluripotent stem cell–derived β cells and sensory neurons. The frataxin-inducing effect of exenatide was confirmed in a pilot trial in Friedreich ataxia patients, showing modest frataxin induction in platelets over a 5-week treatment course. Taken together, GLP-1 analogs improve mitochondrial function in frataxin-deficient cells and induce frataxin expression. Our findings identify incretin receptors as a therapeutic target in Friedreich ataxia.


Mariana Igoillo-Esteve, Ana F. Oliveira, Cristina Cosentino, Federica Fantuzzi, Céline Demarez, Sanna Toivonen, Amélie Hu, Satyan Chintawar, Miguel Lopes, Nathalie Pachera, Ying Cai, Baroj Abdulkarim, Myriam Rai, Lorella Marselli, Piero Marchetti, Mohammad Tariq, Jean-Christophe Jonas, Marina Boscolo, Massimo Pandolfo, Décio L. Eizirik, Miriam Cnop


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