The clustering (or aggregation) of the protein, alpha synuclein, is a cardinal feature of the Parkinsonian brain, and it is believed to be associated with the neurodegeneration that characterises the condition.
As a result, many pharmaceutical and biotech companies are focused a great deal of attention on identifying novel compounds that can enter the brain and inhibit alpha synuclein from aggregating. Recently, a collaboration of companies published the results of an amazingly large study highlighting novel inhibitors.
But an interesting aspect of the results was the ‘positive control’ compound they used: Epigallocatechin Gallate (or simply EGCG)
In today’s post, we will review the results of the study, discuss what EGCG is, and look at what is known about this compound in the context of Parkinson’s.
Every now and then, the research report of a huge study comes along.
And by that, I don’t mean that the results have a major impact. Rather, I am referring to the scope and scale of the work effort required to conduct the study. For example, the GIANT study which is looking for genetic variations associated with height (Click here to read a previous SoPD post that briefly touches on that study).
Recently, the report of one huge study was published:
Title: Potent α-Synuclein Aggregation Inhibitors, Identified by High-Throughput Screening, Mainly Target the Monomeric State
Authors: Kurnik M, Sahin C, Andersen CB, Lorenzen N, Giehm L, Mohammad-Beigi H, Jessen CM, Pedersen JS, Christiansen G, Petersen SV, Staal R, Krishnamurthy G, Pitts K, Reinhart PH, Mulder FAA, Mente S, Hirst WD, Otzen DE.
Journal: Cell Chem Biol. 2018 Aug 29. pii: S2451-9456(18)30271-X.
In this study, researchers from Arrhus University, Biogen, Amgen, Genentech, Forma Therapeutics, & Alentis Pharma screened almost 750,000 different compounds for their ability to interact with the Parkinsons-associated protein alpha synuclein.
And before we go any further, just take a moment to fully appreciate the size of that number again:
That is eye watering stuff! That is a “I need to sit down for a moment and let this sink in” kind of number. That is a “Are there that many compounds in all of the known universe?” number.
After reading the number, I was left wondering what each of the scientists involved in this study must have been thinking when the boss first said “Hey guys, let’s screen half a million compounds…. no, wait, better yet, why stop there. Let’s make it 3/4 of a million compounds”
How enthusiastic was the “Yes boss” response, I wonder?
All kidding aside, this is an amazing study (and the actual number of compounds screened was only 746,000).
And the researchers who conducted the study should be congratulated on their achievement, as the results of their study may have a profound impact in the longer-term for the Parkinson’s community – you see, the researchers found 58 compounds that markedly inhibited the aggregation of alpha synuclein, as well as another 100 compounds that actually increased its aggregation. A great deal of research will result from this single, remarkable piece of work.
But of particular interest to us here at the SoPD, was the activity of one of the positive control compounds that the researchers used in some of the tests.
What was the control compound?
Nuclear factor erythroid 2–related factor 2 (or NRF2) is a protein in each of your cells that plays a major role in regulating resistance to stress. As a result of this function, NRF2 is also the target of a lot of research focused on neuroprotection.
A group of researchers from the University of British Columbia have recently published interesting findings that point towards to a biological pathway that could help us to better harness the beneficial effects of NRF2 in Parkinson’s.
In today’s post, we will discuss what NRF2 is, what the new research suggests, and how we could potentially make use of this new information.
Rusting iron. Source: Thoughtco
In his book ‘
xidation nibbles more slowly – more delicately, like a tortoise – at the world around us, without a flame, we call it rust and we sometimes scarcely notice as it goes about its business consuming everything from hairpins to whole civilizations”
And he was right on the money.
Oxidation is the loss of electrons from a molecule, which in turn destabilises that particular molecule. It is a process that is going on all around us – even within us.
Iron rusting is the example that is usually used to explain oxidation. Rust is the oxidation of iron – in the presence of oxygen and water, iron molecules will lose electrons over time. And given enough time, this results in the complete break down of objects made of iron.
The combustion process of fire is another example, albeit a very rapid form of oxidation.
Oxidation is one half of a process called Redox – the other half being reduction (which involves the gaining of electrons).
The redox process. Source: Academic
Here is a video that explains the redox process:
Now it is important to understand, that oxidation also occurs in biology.
Molecules in your body go through the same process of losing electrons and becoming unstable. This chemical reaction leads to the production of what we call free radicals, which can then go on to damage cells.
What is a free radical?
In 2017, Parkinson’s UK – the largest charitable funder of Parkinson’s disease research in Europe – took a bold step forward in their efforts to find novel therapies.
In addition to funding a wide range of small and large academic research projects and supporting clinical trials, they have also decided to set up ‘virtual biotech’ companies – providing focused efforts to develop new drugs for Parkinson’s, targeting very specific therapeutic areas.
In today’s post we will look at the science behind their first virtual biotech company: Keapstone.
A virtual world of bioscience. Source: Cast-Pharma
I have previously discussed the fantastic Parkinson’s-related research being conducted at Sheffield University (Click here to read that post). Particularly at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) which was opened in 2010 by Her Majesty The Queen. It is the first European Institute purpose-built and dedicated to basic and clinical research into Motor Neuron Disease as well as other neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
The research being conducted at the SITraN has given rise to multiple lines of research following up interesting drug candidates which are gradually being taken to the clinic for various conditions, including Parkinson’s.
It’s all very impressive.
And apparently I’m not the only one who thought it was impressive.
We have previously discussed the powerful antioxidant Resveratrol, and reviewed the research suggesting that it could be beneficial in the context of Parkinson’s disease (Click here to read that post).
I have subsequently been asked by several readers to provide a critique of the Parkinson’s-associated research focused on Resveratrol’s twin sister, Pterostilbene (pronounced ‘Terra-still-bean’).
But quite frankly, I can’t.
Why? Because there is NO peer-reviewed scientific research on Pterostilbene in models of Parkinson’s disease.
In today’s post we will look at what Pterostilbene is, what is known about it, and why we should seriously consider doing some research on this compound (and its cousin Piceatannol) in the context of Parkinson’s disease.
Blue berries are the best natural source of Pterostilbene. Source: Pennington
So this is likely to be the shortest post in SoPD history.
Because there is nothing to talk about.
There is simply no Parkinson’s-related research on the topic of today’s post: Pterostilbene. And that is actually a crying shame, because it is a very interesting compound.
What is Pterostilbene?
Like Resveratrol, Pterostilbene is a stilbenoid.
Stilbenoids are a large class of compounds that share the basic chemical structure of C6-C2-C6:
Resveratrol is a good example of a stilbenoid. Source: Wikipedia
Stilbenoids are phytoalexins (think: plant antibiotics) produced naturally by numerous plants. They are small compounds that become active when the plant is under attack by pathogens, such as bacteria or fungi. Thus, their function is generally considered to part of an anti-microbial/anti-bacterial plant defence system for plants.
The most well-known stilbenoid is resveratrol which grabbed the attention of the research community in a 1997 study when it was found to inhibit tumour growth in particular animal models of cancer:
In a recent post, I discussed research looking at foods that can influence the progression of Parkinson’s (see that post here). I am regularly asked about the topic of food and will endeavour to highlight more research along this line in future post.
In accordance with that statement, today we are going to discuss Cruciferous vegetables, and why we need a clinical trial of broccoli.
I’m not kidding.
There is growing research that a key component of broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables – called Glucoraphanin – could have beneficial effects on Parkinson’s disease. In today’s post, we will discuss what Glucoraphanin is, look at the research that has been conducted and consider why a clinical trial of broccoli would be a good thing for Parkinson’s disease.
Cruciferous vegetables. Source: Diagnosisdiet
Like most kids, when I was young I hated broccoli.
Man, I hated it. With such a passion!
Usually they were boiled or steamed to the point at which they have little or no nutritional value, and they largely became mush upon contact with my fork.
The stuff of my childhood nightmares. Source: Modernpaleo
As I have matured (my wife might debate that statement), my opinion has changed and I have come to appreciate broccoli. Our relationship has definitely improved.
In fact, I have developed a deep appreciation for all cruciferous vegetables.
And yeah, I know what you are going to ask:
What are cruciferous vegetables?
Cruciferous vegetables are vegetables of the Brassicaceae family (also called Cruciferae). They are a family of flowering plants commonly known as the mustards, the crucifers, or simply the cabbage family. They include cauliflower, cabbage, garden cress, bok choy, broccoli, brussels sprouts and similar green leaf vegetables.
Cruciferous vegetables. Source: Thetherapyshare
So what have Cruciferous vegetables got to do with Parkinson’s?
Well, it’s not the vegetables as such that are important. Rather, it is a particular chemical that this family of plants share – called Glucoraphanin – that is key.
What is Glucoraphanin?
This week a group of scientists have published an article which indicates differences between mice and human beings, calling into question the use of these mice in Parkinson’s disease research.
The results could explain way mice do not get Parkinson’s disease, and they may also partly explain why humans do.
In today’s post we will outline the new research, discuss the results, and look at whether Levodopa treatment may (or may not) be a problem.
The humble lab mouse. Source: PBS
Much of our understanding of modern biology is derived from the “lower organisms”.
From yeast to snails (there is a post coming shortly on a snail model of Parkinson’s disease – I kid you not) and from flies to mice, a great deal of what we know about basic biology comes from experimentation on these creatures. So much in fact that many of our current ideas about neurodegenerative diseases result from modelling those conditions in these creatures.
Now say what you like about the ethics and morality of this approach, these organisms have been useful until now. And I say ‘until now’ because an interesting research report was released this week which may call into question much of the knowledge we have from the modelling of Parkinson’s disease is these creatures.
You see, here’s the thing: Flies don’t naturally develop Parkinson’s disease.
Nor do mice. Or snails.
Or yeast for that matter.
So we are forcing a very un-natural state upon the biology of these creatures and then studying the response/effect. Which could be giving us strange results that don’t necessarily apply to human beings. And this may explain our long history of failed clinical trials.
We work with the best tools we have, but it those tools are flawed…
What did the new research report find?
This is the study:
Title: Dopamine oxidation mediates mitochondrial and lysosomal dysfunction in Parkinson’s disease
Authors: Burbulla LF, Song P, Mazzulli JR, Zampese E, Wong YC, Jeon S, Santos DP, Blanz J, Obermaier CD, Strojny C, Savas JN, Kiskinis E, Zhuang X, Krüger R, Surmeier DJ, Krainc D
Journal: Science, 07 Sept 2017 – Early online publication
The researchers who conducted this study began by growing dopamine neurons – a type of cell badly affected by Parkinson’s disease – from induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells.
What are induced pluripotent stem cells?
The title of this post probably reads like the mad, drug-fuelled scream of a drunk Saturday night party animal, but the elements of it may be VERY important for a particular kind of Parkinson’s disease.
Mutations in a gene called DJ-1 can cause an early onset form of Parkinson’s disease. The protein of DJ-1 plays an important role in how cells handle oxidative stress – or the increase in damaging free radicals (explained below).
This week researchers announced that they have found an interesting new therapeutic target for people with DJ-1 associated Parkinson’s disease: A chemical called Isocitrate.
In this post, we will discuss what DJ-1 is involved with Parkinson’s disease, how isocitrate helps the situation, and what the results of new research mean for future therapeutic strategies.
In 2017, we are not only observing the 200 year anniversary of the first description of Parkinson’s disease (by one Mr James Parkinson), but also the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the first genetic variation associated with the condition (Click here to read more about that). Our understanding of the genetics of Parkinson’s disease since 1997, has revolutionised the way we look at Parkinson’s disease and opened new doors that have aided us in our understanding.
During the last 20 years, we have identified numerous sections of DNA (these regions are called genes) where small errors in the genetic coding (mutations or variants) can result in an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. As the graph below indicates, mutations in some of these genes are very rare, but infer a very high risk, while others are quite common but have a low risk of Parkinson’s disease.
The genetics of PD. Source: Journal of Parkinson’s disease
Some of the genetic mutation need to be provided by both the parents for Parkinson’s to develop (an ‘autosomal recessive‘ mutation – the yellow circles in the graph above); while in other cases the genetic variant needs only to be provided by one of the parents (an ‘autosomal dominant’ mutation – the blue circles). Many of the genetic mutations are very common and simply considered a region of increased risk (green circles).
Importantly, all of these genes provide the instructions for making a protein – which are the functional parts in a cell. And each of these proteins have specific roles in biological processes. These functions tell us a little bit about how Parkinson’s disease may be working. Each of them is a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that we are trying to finish. As you can see in the image below, many of the genes mentioned in the graph above give rise to proteins that are involved in different parts of the process of autophagy – or the waste disposal system of the cell. You may notice that some proteins, like SCNA (otherwise known as alpha synuclein), are involved in multiple steps in this process.
The process of autophagy. Source: Nature
In today’s post we are going to look at new research regarding just one of these genes/proteins. It is called DJ-1, also known as Parkinson disease protein 7 (or PARK7).
What is DJ-1?
The image above presents a ‘before treatment’ (left) and ‘after treatment’ (right) brain scan image from a recent research report of a clinical study that looked at the use of Acetylcysteine (also known as N-acetylcysteine or simply NAC) in Parkinson’s disease.
DaTscan brain imaging technique allows us to look at the level of dopamine processing in an individual’s brain. Red areas representing a lot; blue areas – not so much. The image above represents a rather remarkable result and it certainly grabbed our attention here at the SoPD HQ (I have never seen anything like it!).
In today’s post, we will review the science behind this NAC and discuss what is happening with ongoing clinical trials.
Source: The Register
Let me ask you a personal question:
Have you ever overdosed on Paracetamol?
Regardless of your answer to that question, one of the main treatments for Paracetamol overdose is administration of a drug called ‘Acetylcysteine’.
Why are you telling me this?
Because acetylcysteine is currently being assessed as a potential treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
Oh I see. Tell me more. What is acetylcysteine?
Acetylcysteine. Source: Wikimedia
Acetylcysteine (N-acetylcysteine or NAC – commercially named Mucomyst) is a prodrug – that is a compound that undergoes a transformation when ingested by the body and then begins exhibiting pharmacological effects. Acetylcysteine serves as a prodrug to a protein called L-cysteine, and – just as L-dopa is an intermediate in the production of dopamine – L-cysteine is an intermediate in the production of another protein called glutathione.
Take home message: Acetylcysteine allows for increased production of Glutathione.
What is glutathione?
Glutathione. Source: Wikipedia
Glutathione (pronounced “gloota-thigh-own”) is a tripeptide (a string of three amino acids connected by peptide bonds) containing the amino acids glycine, glutamic acid, and cysteine. It is produced naturally in nearly all cells. In the brain, glutathione is concentrated in the helper cells (called astrocytes) and also in the branches of neurons, but not in the actual cell body of the neuron.
It functions as a potent antioxidant.
The title of this post is a play on a Thomas Jefferson quote (“the olive tree is surely the richest gift of heaven“). Jefferson, the third President of the United States (1801 to 1809), was apparently quite the lover of food. During the Revolutionary War, while he was a U.S. envoy to France, Jefferson travelled the country. In Aix-en-Provence, he developed an admiration for olive trees, calling them “the most interesting plant in existence”.
Being huge food lovers ourselves, we here at the SoPD wholeheartedly agree with Jefferson. But we also think that olives are interesting for another reason:
They contain a chemical called Oleuropein.
In today’s post we’ll explore what is known about this chemical and discuss what it could mean for Parkinson’s disease.
Olives. Source: Gardeningknowhow
The olive, also known by the botanical name ‘Olea europaea,’ is an evergreen tree that is native to the Mediterranean, Asia and Africa, but now found around the world. It has a rich history of economic and symbolic importance within western civilisation. And the fruit of the tree also tastes good, either by themselves or in a salad or pasta dish.
Traditional diets of people living around the Mediterranean sea are very rich in extra-virgin olive oil. Olives are an excellent source of ‘good’ fatty acids (monounsaturated and di-unsaturated), antioxidants and vitamins. Indeed, research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease (Click here to read more on this).
Olive oil. Source: Bonzonosvilla
There are also chemicals within the olive fruit that may have very positive benefits for Parkinson’s disease.
But before you rush out and gorge yourself on olives, we have one small piece of advice:
The chemical is called Oleuropein, and it is usually removed from olives due to its bitterness.
What is Oleuropein?
Oleuropein is a ‘phenylethanoid’ – a type of phenolic compound that is found in the leaf and the fruit of the olive. Phenolic compounds are produced by plants as a protective measure against different kinds of stress.
Oleuropein. Source: Wikipedia
The main phenolic compounds found in olives are hydroxytyrosol and oleuropein – both of which give extra-virgin olive oil its bitter taste and both have demonstrated neuroprotective effects.
More research has been done on oleuropein so we will focus on it here (for more on hydroxytyrosol – please click here).
Oleuropein has been found to have many interesting properties, such as:
The many properties of oleuropein. Source: Mdpi
What neuroprotective research has been done on Oleuropein?
Thus far, most of the research addressing this question has been conducted on models of Alzheimer’s disease. The first study
Title: Oleuropein aglycone protects transgenic C. elegans strains expressing Aβ42 by reducing plaque load and motor deficit.
Authors: Diomede L, Rigacci S, Romeo M, Stefani M, Salmona M.
Journal: PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e58893.
PMID: 23520540 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
The Italian researchers who conducted this study treated a microscopic worm model of Alzheimer’s disease with oleuropein aglycone. We should not that oleuropein aglycone is a hydrolysis product of oleuropein (a hydrolysis product is a chemical compound that is broken apart by the addition of water). The microscopic worm used in the study are called Caenorhabditis elegans:
Caenorhabditis elegans – cute huh? Source: Nematode
Caenorhabditis elegans (or simply C. Elegans) are tiny creatures that are widely used in biology because they can be easily genetically manipulated and their nervous system is very simple and well mapped out (they have just 302 neurons and 56 glial cells!). The particular strain of C. elegans used in this first study produced enormous amounts of a protein called Aβ42.
Amyloid beta (or Aβ) is the bad boy/trouble maker of Alzheimer’s disease; considered to be critically involved in the condition. A fragment of this protein (called Aβ42) begins clustering in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. This clustering of Aβ42 goes on to form the plaques that are so characteristic of the Alzheimer’s affected brain.
The Italian researchers conducting this study had previously shown that oleuropein can inhibit the ability of Aβ42 to aggregate in cells growing in culture dishes (Click here to read more about that study), and they wanted to see if oleuropein had the same properties in actual live animals. So they chose the C. Elegans that had been genetically engineered to produce a lot of Aβ42 to test this idea.
In the C. Elegans that produce a lot of Aβ42 gradually become paralysed and their lives are shortened. By treating these worms with oleuropein, however, the Italian researchers found that there was less aggregation of Aβ42 (though the levels of the protein stayed the same), resulting in less plaque formation, and improved mobility (>50% reduction in paralysis) and survival compared to untreated Aβ42 producing C. Elegans.
Encouraged by this result, the researchers next moved on to studies in mice:
Title: The polyphenol oleuropein aglycone protects TgCRND8 mice against Aß plaque pathology.
Authors: Grossi C, Rigacci S, Ambrosini S, Ed Dami T, Luccarini I, Traini C, Failli P, Berti A, Casamenti F, Stefani M.
Journal: PLoS One. 2013 Aug 8;8(8):e71702.
PMID: 23951225 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
For this study, the Italian researchers used the genetically engineered TgCRND8 mice. These mice have a mutant form of amyloid precursor protein (which, similar to Aβ42, is associated with Alzheimer’s disease). In the brains of these mice, amyloid clustering begins at 3 months of age, and dense plaques are evident from 5 months of age. The mice also exhibit a clear learning impairment from 3 months of age.
By treating these mice with oleuropein aglycone, the researchers observed a remarkable reduction in plaques in the brain, and those that were present appeared less compact and “fluffy” (their very technical description, not ours). In addition, there was a reduction in the activation of astrocytes and microglia (the helper cells in the brain), indicating a healthier environment.
These same researchers have observed the same results in a rat model of Alzheimer’s disease in a report published the next year (Click here to read more about this).
Interestingly, the oleuropein treated TgCRND8 mice also displayed a major increase in autophagy activity. As we discussed in our previous post (Click here to read that post), autophagy is the rubbish disposal/recycling system of each cell, and increasing the activity of this system can help to keep cells health (particularly if there is a lot of a genetically engineered protein present!).
The Italian researchers repeated this study, and published the results this year, with an interesting twist:
Title: Oleuropein aglycone and polyphenols from olive mill waste water ameliorate cognitive deficits and neuropathology.
Authors: Pantano D, Luccarini I, Nardiello P, Servili M, Stefani M, Casamenti F.
Journal: Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2017 Jan;83(1):54-62.
In this study, the researchers tested the same genetically engineered mice, but with two different treatments:
- Two much lower doses of oleuropein (4 and 100 times lower)
- A mixture of polyphenols from olive mill concentrated waste water
The lowest dose of oleuropein (100 times less oleuropein than the previous study) did not provide any significant improvements for the mice, but the intermediate dose (only 4 times less oleuropein than the previous study) did provide significant benefits. These result indicate that there is a dose-dependent range to the beneficial properties of oleuropein.
The researchers also observed very similar beneficial effects from the mice drinking a mixture of polyphenols from olive mill concentrated waste water. Given these results, the investigators are now seeking to design appropriate conditions to perform a clinical trial to assess better the possible use of oleuropein (or a mix of olive polyphenols) against Alzheimer’s disease.
Ok, but what research has been done with oleuropein and Parkinson’s disease?
Unfortunately, not much.
A research group in Iran has looked at the effect of oleuropein in aged rodents and found an interesting result:
Title: Antioxidant role of oleuropein on midbrain and dopaminergic neurons of substantia nigra in aged rats.
Authors: Sarbishegi M, Mehraein F, Soleimani M.
Journal: Iran Biomed J. 2014;18(1):16-22.
PMID: 24375158 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
In this study, the investigators took twenty aged rats (18-month-old) and randomly assigned them to two groups: a treatment group (which received a daily dose of 50 mg/kg of oleuropein for 6 months) and a control group (which received just water). Following these treatments, the investigators found an increase in the activity of anti-oxidant agents (such as superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione) in the treatment group compared to control group. The treated rats also had significantly more dopamine neurons in the region of the brain affected by Parkinson’s disease (the substantia nigra). The investigators concluded that oleuropein consumption in a daily diet may be useful in reducing oxidative stress damage by increasing the antioxidant activity in the brain.
This first study was followed more recently by a report from a group in Quebec (Canada) who investigated oleuropein use in a cell culture model of Parkinson’s disease:
Title: Oleuropein Prevents Neuronal Death, Mitigates Mitochondrial Superoxide Production and Modulates Autophagy in a Dopaminergic Cellular Model.
Authors: Achour I, Arel-Dubeau AM, Renaud J, Legrand M, Attard E, Germain M, Martinoli MG.
Journal: Int J Mol Sci. 2016 Aug 9;17(8).
PMID: 27517912 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
The researcher conducting this study wanted to determine if oleuropein could prevent neuronal degeneration in a cellular model of Parkinson’s disease. They exposed cells to the neurotoxin 6-hydroxydopamine (6-OHDA) and then investigated mitochondrial oxidative stress and autophagy.
What is mitochondrial oxidative stress?
Mitochondria are the power house of each cell. They keep the lights on. Without them, the lights go out and the cell dies.
Mitochondria and their location in the cell. Source: NCBI
Oxidative stress results from too much oxidation. Oxidation is the loss of electrons from a molecule, which in turn destabilises the molecule. Think of iron rusting. Rust is the oxidation of iron – in the presence of oxygen and water, iron molecules will lose electrons over time. Given enough time, this results in the complete break down of objects made of iron.
Rust, the oxidation of metal. Source: TravelwithKevinandRuth
The exact same thing happens in biology. Molecules in your body go through a similar process of oxidation – losing electrons and becoming unstable. This chemical reaction leads to the production of what we call free radicals, which can then go on to damage cells. A free radical is an unstable molecule – unstable because they are missing electrons.
How free radicals and antioxidants work. Source: h2miraclewater
In an unstable format, free radicals bounce all over the place, reacting quickly with other molecules, trying to capture the much needed electron to re-gain stability. Free radicals will literally attack the nearest stable molecule, to steal an electron. This leads to the “attacked” molecule becoming a free radical itself, and thus a chain reaction is started. Inside a living cell this can cause terrible damage, ultimately killing the cell.
Now if this oxidative process starts in the mitochondria, it can be very bad for a cell.
And what is autophagy?
Yes, the researchers also looked at autophagy levels in their cells. Autophagy is an absolutely essential function in a cell. Without autophagy, old proteins and mitochondria will pile up making the cell sick and eventually it dies. Through the process of autophagy, the cell can break down the old protein, clearing the way for fresh new proteins to do their job.
Think of autophagy as the waste disposal/recycling process of the cell.
The process of autophagy. Source: Wormbook
Waste material inside a cell is collected in membranes that form sacs (called vesicles). These vesicles then bind to another sac (called a lysosome) which contains enzymes that will breakdown and degrade the waste material. The degraded waste material can then be recycled or disposed of by spitting it out of the cell.
Ok, so what did the researchers find?
Well, by pretreating the their cells with oleuropein 3 hours before exposing them to the neurotoxin, the investigators found a significant neuroprotective effect. There was a significant reduction in mitochondrial production of free radicals, and the investigators found an important role for oleuropein in the regulation of autophagy.
And the good news is that other research groups have observed similar beneficial effects of oleuropein in cell culture models of Parkinson’s disease (Click here to read more about that).
The bad news is: that is all the published research on oleuropein and Parkinson’s disease we could find (and we would be happy to be corrected on this if people are aware of other reports!).
So what does Oleuropein do in the brain?
This is a good question, but with so little research done in this area, it is hard to answer.
We know that oleuropein is well absorbed by the human body and that it is relatively stable (Click here to read more on this). In addition, it can cross the blood-brain-barrier – in rodents at least (Click here to read more on that).
Obviously (based on the research we described above), we know that oleuropein has anti-oxidant promoting activities. In addition, it appears to be doing something with regards to autophagy. And it may be regulating autophagy by acting as an inhibitor of mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) activation.
What is mTOR?
mTOR is a protein that binds with other proteins to form the nexus of a signalling pathway which integrates both intracellular and extracellular signals (such asnutrients, growth factors, and cellular energy status) and then serves as one of the central instructors of how the cell should respond.
For example, insulin can signal to mTOR the status of glucose levels in the body. mTOR also deals with infectious or cellular stress-causing agents, thus it could be involved in a cells response to conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
Factors that activate mTOR. Source: Selfhacked
One important property of mTOR is its ability to block autophagy (the recycling process of the cell that we discussed above). Recently, the Italian researchers whose work we reviewed above, found that oleuropein can activate autophagy by blocking the mTOR pathway:
Title: Oleuropein aglycone induces autophagy via the AMPK/mTOR signalling pathway: a mechanistic insight.
Authors: Rigacci S, Miceli C, Nediani C, Berti A, Cascella R, Pantano D, Nardiello P, Luccarini I, Casamenti F, Stefani M.
Journal: Oncotarget. 2015 Nov 3;6(34):35344-57.
PMID: 26474288 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
The researchers conducting this study found that treatment with oleuropein caused an increase in autophagy in both cell culture and in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, and they demonstrated that it achieved this by blocking the mTOR pathway.
Has anyone ever looked at oleuropein in the clinic?
No, not to our knowledge (and we are happy to be corrected on this).
There have been six clinical trials of olive leaf extract (the majority of which is oleuropien), but none of them have been focused on any neurological conditions.
So oleuropein is safe then?
It is a widely available supplement that a lot of people use to help lower bad cholesterol and blood pressure, so yes it can be considered safe. But any decision to experiment with oleuropein should only be made in consultation with your regular medically trained physician.
Why? Because there are always caveats.
Importantly, individuals with low blood pressure and diabetes may suffer even lower blood pressure and blood glucose levels as a result of consumption of oleuropein. Oleuropein may also interact with other pharmaceutical drugs that are designed to lower blood pressure or regulate diabetes. Such interactions could be dangerous.
And this is a particularly important factor for Parkinson’s disease as up to 30% of people with Parkinson’s may be glucose intolerant (Click here to see our post on Parkinson’s & diabetes).
Those who experience symptoms such as headache, nausea, flu-like symptoms, fainting, dizziness, and other life threatening symptoms should medical attention immediately.
What does it all mean?
We are grateful to regular reader (Don) who brought oleuropein to our attention. It is a very interesting chemical and we are definitely intrigued by it. We would certainly like to see more research on oleuropein in models of Parkinson’s disease.
Attentive readers will have noticed that most of the research discussed above have been conducted in the last 5-10 years. This suggests that oleuropein research is still in its infancy, particularly with regards to research on neurological conditions. And we hope that by reporting on it here, we will be bringing it to the attention of researchers.
Oleuropein is extracted from all parts of the olive tree (the leaves, bark, root, and fruit). It forms part of the defence system of the olive tree against stress or infection. Perhaps we could apply some of its interesting properties to Parkinson’s disease.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Under absolutely no circumstances should anyone reading the material on this website consider it medical advice. The information provided here is for educational purposes only. Before considering or attempting any change in your treatment regime, PLEASE consult with your doctor or neurologist. While some of the drugs and supplements discussed on this website are clinically available, they may have serious side effects. We urge caution and professional consultation before altering any treatment regime. SoPD can not be held responsible for any actions taken based on the information provided here.
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Please excuse our use of UK slang in the title of this post, but a group of Australian researchers have recently discovered something really interesting about Parkinson’s disease.
And being a patriotic kiwi, it takes something REALLY interesting for me to even acknowledge that other South Pacific nation. This new finding, however, could be big.
In today’s post, we will review new research dealing with a protein called SOD1, and discuss what it could mean for the Parkinson’s community.
The number of dark pigmented dopamine cells in the substantia nigra are reduced in the Parkinson’s disease brain (right). Source: Adaptd from Memorangapp
Every Parkinson’s-associated website and every Parkinson’s disease researchers will tell you exactly the same thing when describing the two cardinal features in the brain of a person who died with Parkinson’s disease:
- The loss of certain types of cells (such as the dopamine producing cells of the substantia nigra region of the brain – see the image above)
- The clustering (or aggregation) of a protein called Alpha synuclein in tightly packed, circular deposits, called Lewy bodies (see image below).
A Lewy body inside a cell. Source: Adapted from Neuropathology-web
The clustered alpha synuclein protein, however, is not limited to just the Lewy bodies. In the affected areas of the brain, aggregated alpha synuclein can be seen in the branches of cells – see the image below where alpha synuclein has been stained brown on a section of brain from a person with Parkinson’s disease.
Examples of Lewy neurites (indicated by arrows). Source: Wikimedia
Now, one of the problems with our understanding of Parkinson’s disease is disparity between the widespread presence of clustered alpha synuclein and very selective pattern of cell loss. Alpha synuclein aggregation can be seen distributed widely around the affected areas of the brain, but the cell loss will be limited to specific populations of cells.
If the disease is killing a particular population of cells, why is alpha synuclein clustering so wide spread?
So why is there a difference?
We don’t know.
It could be that the cells that die have a lower threshold for alpha synuclein toxicity (we discussed this is a previous post – click here?).
But this question regarding the difference between these two features has left many researchers wondering if there may be some other protein or agent that is actually killing off the cells and then disappearing quickly, leaving poor old alpha synuclein looking rather guilty.
Poor little Mr “A Synuclein” got the blame, but his older brother actually did it! Source: Youtube
And this is a very serious discussion point.
This year of 2017 represents the 200th anniversary of James Parkinson’s first description of Parkinson’s disease, but it also represents the 20th anniversary since the association between alpha synuclein and PD was first established. We have produced almost 7,000 research reports on the topic of alpha synuclein and PD during that time, and we currently have ongoing clinical trials targetting alpha synuclein.
But what if our basic premise – that alpha synuclein is the bad guy – is actually wrong?
Is there any evidence to suggest this?
We are just speculating here, but yes there is.
For example, in a study of 904 brains, alpha synuclein deposits were observed in 11.3% of the brains (or 106 cases), but of those cases only 32 had been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disorder (Click here to read more on this). The remaining 74 cases had demonstrated none of the clinical features of Parkinson’s disease.
So what else could be causing the cell death?
Well, this week some scientists from sunny Sydney (Australia) reported a protein that could fit the bill.
Sydney. Source: Vagabond
The interesting part of their finding is that the protein is also associated with another neurodegenerative condition: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Remind me again, what is Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?
Parkinson’s disease and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are the second and third most common adult-onset neurodegenerative conditions (respectively) after Alzheimer’s disease. We recently discussed ALS in a previous post (Click here to read that post).
ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and motor neuron disease, is a neurodegenerative condition in which the neurons that control voluntary muscle movement die. The condition affects 2 people in every 100,000 each year, and those individuals have an average survival time of two to four years.
You may have heard of ALS due to it’s association with the internet ‘Ice bucket challenge‘ craze that went viral in 2014-15.
The Ice bucket challenge. Source: Forbes
What is the protein associated with ALS?
In 1993, scientists discovered that mutations in the gene called SOD1 were associated with familial forms of ALS (Click here to read more about this). We now know that mutations in the SOD1 gene are associated with around 20% of familial cases of ALS and 5% of sporadic ALS.
The SOD1 gene produces an enzyme called Cu-Zn superoxide dismutase.
This enzyme is a very powerful antioxidant that protects the body from damage caused by toxic free radical generated in the mitochondria.
SOD1 protein structure. Source: Wikipedia
One important note here regarding ALS: the genetic mutations in the SOD1 gene do not cause ALS by affecting SOD1’s antioxidant properties (Click here to read more about this). Rather, researchers believe that the cell death seen in SOD1-associated forms of ALS is the consequences of some kind of toxic effect caused by the mutant protein.
So what did the Aussie researchers find about SOD1 in Parkinson’s disease?
This week, the Aussie researchers published this research report:
Title: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis-like superoxide dismutase 1 proteinopathy is associated withneuronal loss in Parkinson’s disease brain.
Authors: Trist BG, Davies KM, Cottam V, Genoud S, Ortega R, Roudeau S, Carmona A, De Silva K, Wasinger V, Lewis SJG, Sachdev P, Smith B, Troakes C, Vance C, Shaw C, Al-Sarraj S, Ball HJ, Halliday GM, Hare DJ, Double KL.
Journal: Acta Neuropathol. 2017 May 19. doi: 10.1007/s00401-017-1726-6.
Given that oxidative stress is a major feature of Parkinson’s disease, the Aussie researchers wanted to investigate the role of the anti-oxidant enzyme, SOD1 in this condition. And what they found surprised them.
Heck, it surprised us!
Two areas affected by Parkinson’s disease – the substantia nigra (where the dopamine neurons reside; SNc in the image below) and the locus coeruleus (an area in the brain stem that is involved with physiological responses to stress; LC in the image below) – exhibited little or no SOD1 protein in the control brains.
But in the Parkinsonian brains, there was a great deal of SOD1 protein (see image below).
SO1 staining in PD brain and Control brains. Source: Springer
In the image above, you can see yellowish-brown stained patches in both the PD and control images. This a chemical called neuromelanin and it can be used to identify the dopamine-producing cells in the SNc and LC. The grey staining in the PD images (top) are cells that contain SOD1. Note the lack of SOD1 (grey staining) in the control images (bottom).
Approximately 90% of Lewy bodies in the Parkinson’s affected brains contained SOD1 protein. The investigators did report that the levels of SOD1 protein varied between Lewy bodies. But the clustered (or ‘aggregated’) SOD1 protein was not just present with alpha synuclein, often it was found by itself in the degenerating regions.
The researchers occasional saw SOD1 aggregation in regions of age-matched control brains, and they concluded that a very low level of SOD1 must be inherent to the normal ageing process.
But the density of SOD1 clustering was (on average) 8x higher in the SNc and 4x higher in the LC in the Parkinsonian brain compared to age-matched controls. In addition, the SOD1 clustering was significantly greater in these regions than all of the non-degenerating regions of the same Parkinson’s disease brains.
The investigators concluded that these data suggest an association between SOD1 aggregation and neuronal loss in Parkinson’s disease. Importantly, the presence of SOD1 aggregations “closely reflected the regional pattern of neuronal loss”.
They also demonstrated that the SOD1 protein in the Parkinsonian brain was not folded correctly, a similar characteristic to alpha synuclein. A protein must fold properly to be able to do it’s assigned jobs. By not folding into the correct configuration, the SOD1 protein could not do it’s various functions – and the investigators observed a 66% reduction in SOD1 specific activity in the SNc of the Parkinson’s disease brains.
Interestingly, when the researchers looked at the SNc and LC of brains from people with ALS, they identified SOD1 aggregates matching the SOD1 clusters they had seen in these regions of the Parkinson’s disease brain.
Is this the first time SOD1 has been associated with Parkinson’s disease?
No, but it is the first major analysis of postmortem Parkinsonian brains. SOD1 protein in Lewy bodies has been reported before:
Title: Cu/Zn superoxide dismutase-like immunoreactivity is present in Lewy bodies from Parkinson disease: a light and electron microscopic immunocytochemical study
Authors: Nishiyama K, Murayama S, Shimizu J, Ohya Y, Kwak S, Asayama K, Kanazawa I.
Journal: Acta Neuropathol. 1995;89(6):471-4.
The investigators behind this study reported SOD1 protein was present in Lewy bodies, in the substantia nigra and locus coeruleus of brains from five people with Parkinson’s disease. Interestingly, they showed that SOD1 is present in the periphery of the Lewy body, similar to alpha synuclein. Both of these protein are present on the outside of the Lewy body, as opposed to another Parkinson’s associated protein, Ubiquitin, which is mainly present in the centre (or the core) of Lewy bodies (see image below).
A more recent study also demonstrated SOD1 protein in the Parkinsonian brain, including direct interaction between SOD1 and alpha synuclein:
Title: α-synuclein interacts with SOD1 and promotes its oligomerization
Authors: Helferich AM, Ruf WP, Grozdanov V, Freischmidt A, Feiler MS, Zondler L, Ludolph AC, McLean PJ, Weishaupt JH, Danzer KM.
Journal: Mol Neurodegener. 2015 Dec 8;10:66.
PMID: 26643113 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
These researchers found that alpha synuclein and SOD1 interact directly, and they noted that Parkinson’s disease related mutations in alpha synuclein (A30P, A53T) and ALS associated mutation in SOD1 (G85R, G93A) modify the binding of the two proteins to each other. They also reported that alpha synuclein accelerates SOD1 aggregation in cell culture. This same group of researchers published another research report last year in which they noted that aggregated alpha synuclein increases SOD1 clustering in a mouse model of ALS (Click here for more on this).
Are there any genetic mutations in the SOD1 gene that are associated with Parkinson’s disease?
Two studies have addressed this question:
Title: Sequence of the superoxide dismutase 1 (SOD 1) gene in familial Parkinson’s disease.
Authors: Bandmann O, Davis MB, Marsden CD, Harding AE.
Journal: J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1995 Jul;59(1):90-1.
PMID: 7608718 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
And then in 2001, a second analysis:
Title: Genetic polymorphisms of superoxide dismutase in Parkinson’s disease.
Authors: Farin FM, Hitosis Y, Hallagan SE, Kushleika J, Woods JS, Janssen PS, Smith-Weller T, Franklin GM, Swanson PD, Checkoway H.
Journal: Mov Disord. 2001 Jul;16(4):705-7.
Both studies found no genetic variations in the SOD1 gene that were more frequent in the Parkinson’s affected community than the general population. So, no, there are no SOD1 genetic mutations that are associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Are there any treatments targeting SOD1 that could be tested in Parkinson’s disease?
Great question. Yes there are. And they have already been tested in models of PD:
Title: The hypoxia imaging agent CuII(atsm) is neuroprotective and improves motor and cognitive functions in multiple animal models of Parkinson’s disease.
Authors: Hung LW, Villemagne VL, Cheng L, Sherratt NA, Ayton S, White AR, Crouch PJ, Lim S, Leong SL, Wilkins S, George J, Roberts BR, Pham CL, Liu X, Chiu FC, Shackleford DM, Powell AK, Masters CL, Bush AI, O’Keefe G, Culvenor JG, Cappai R, Cherny RA, Donnelly PS, Hill AF, Finkelstein DI, Barnham KJ.
Title: J Exp Med. 2012 Apr 9;209(4):837-54.
PMID: 22473957 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
CuII(atsm) is a drug that is currently under clinical investigation as a brain imaging agent for detecting hypoxia (damage caused by lack of oxygen – Click here to read more about this).
The researchers conducting this study, however, were interested in this compound for other reasons: CuII(atsm) is also a highly effective scavenger of a chemical called ONOO, which can be very toxic. CuII(atsm) not only inhibits this toxicity, but it also blocks the clustering of alpha synuclein. And given that CuII(atsm) is capable of crossing the blood–brain barrier, these investigators wanted to assess the drug for its ability to rescue model of Parkinson’s disease.
And guess what? It did!
And not just in one model of Parkinson’s disease, but FOUR!
The investigators even waited three days after giving the neurotoxins to the mice before giving the CuII(atsm) drug, and it still demonstrated neuroprotection. It also improved the behavioural features of these models of Parkinson’s disease.
Is CuII(atsm) being tested for anything else in Clinical trials?
Yes, there is a clinical trial ongoing for ALS in Australia.
The Phase I study, being run by Collaborative Medicinal Development Pty Limited, is a dose escalating study of Cu(II)ATSM to determine if this drug is safe for use in ALS (Click here for more on this study).
Cu(II)ATSM is an orally administered drug that inhibits the activity of misfolded SOD1 protein. It has been shown to paradoxically increase mutant SOD1 protein in a mouse model of ALS, but it also provides neuroprotection and improves the outcome for these mice (Click here to read more on this).
If this trial is successful, it would be interesting to test this drug on a cohort of people with Parkinson’s disease. Determining which subgroup of the Parkinson’s affected community would most benefit from this treatment is still to be determined. There is some evidence published last year that suggests people with genetic mutations in the Parkinson’s associated gene PARK2 could benefit from the approach (Click here to read more on this). More research, however, is needed in this area.
So what does it all mean?
Right, so summing up, a group of Australian researchers have reported that the ALS associated protein SOD1 is closely associated with the cell death that we observe in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease.
They suggest that this could highlight a common mechanisms of toxic SOD1 aggregation in both Parkinson’s disease and ALS. Individuals within the Parkinson’s affected community do not appear to have any genetic mutations in the SOD1 gene, which makes this finding is very interesting.
What remains to be determined is whether SOD1 aggregation is a “primary pathological event”, or if it is secondary to some other disease causing agent. We are also waiting to see if a clinical trial targeting SOD1 in ALS is successful. If it is, there may be good reasons for targeting SOD1 as a novel treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
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