Mitochondrial disorders are heterogeneous multisystemic disorders due to impaired oxidative phosphorylation causing defective mitochondrial energy production. Common histological hallmarks of mitochondrial disorders are RRFs (ragged red fibres), muscle fibres with abnormal focal accumulations of mitochondria. In contrast with the growing understanding of the genetic basis of mitochondrial disorders, the fate of phenotypically affected muscle fibres remains largely unknown. We investigated PCD (programmed cell death) in muscle of 17 patients with mitochondrial respiratory chain dysfunction. We documented that in affected muscle fibres, nuclear chromatin is condensed in lumpy irregular masses and cytochrome c is released into the cytosol to activate, along with Apaf-1 (apoptotic protease-activating factor 1), caspase 9 that, in turn, activates effector caspase 3, caspase 6, and caspase 7, suggesting the execution of the intrinsic apoptotic pathway. Whereas active caspase 3 underwent nuclear translocation, AIF (apoptosis-inducing factor) mainly stayed within mitochondria, into which an up-regulated Bax is relocated. The significant increase in caspase 2, caspase 3 and caspase 6 activity strongly suggest that the cell death programme is caspase-dependent and the activation of caspase 2 together with PUMA (p53 up-regulated modulator of apoptosis) up-regulation point to a role for oxidative stress in triggering the intrinsic pathway. Concurrently, in muscle of patients, the number of satellite cells was significantly increased and myonuclei were detected at different stages of myogenic differentiation, indicating that a reparative programme is ongoing in muscle of patients with mitochondrial disorders. Together, these data suggest that, in patients with mitochondrial disorders, affected muscle fibres are trapped in a mitochondria-regulated caspase-dependent PCD while repairing events take place.

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