Last Monday, a SpaceX rocket lifted off from the Florida peninsular on route to the International Space Station.
On board that craft was an experiment that could have big implications for Parkinson’s disease. It involves a Parkinson’s-associated protein called Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (or LRRK2).
In today’s post, we will discuss why we needed to send this protein into orbit.
The International Space Station. Source: NASA
When you look up at the sky tonight – if you look for long enough – you may well see a bright little object hurtling across the sky (Click here to learn more about how to track the International Space Station). Know that inside that bright little object passing over you there is currently some Parkinson’s disease-related research being conducted.
What is the International Space Station?
The International Space Station (or the ISS) is the largest human-made object that we have ever put into space. It is so big in fact that you can see it with the naked eye from Earth.
(How’s that for exciting viewing?)
The current space station is 73.3 metres (240 feet) long and 44.5 metres (146 feet) wide, weighing approximately 420 tonnes (924,740 lb), and it has been continuously occupied for 16 years and 289 days, making it the longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit. The ISS travels at a speed of 7.67 km/second, maintains an altitude of between 330 and 435 km (205 and 270 mi), and completes 15.54 orbits per day (it has made over 102,000 orbits!).
The size of the the ISS compared to a Boeing Jumbo jet. Source: Reddit
First approved by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, it was not until November 1998 that the first components of the International space station were first launched into orbit. 36 shuttle flights were made to help build the station. The first crew members took up residence on the 2nd November 2000, and the station was completed in 2011. There is always 6 crew members on board – the current team are Expedition 52 – and it has been visited by 220 astronauts, cosmonauts and space tourists from 17 different nations since the project began.
Oh yeah, and if you want to see what it looks like on board the ISS, in 2015 the European Space Agency provided an interactive tour and earlier this year Google Maps added an interactive tour of the ISS.
In Silicon valley (California), everyone is always looking for the “next killer app” – the piece of software (or application) that is going to change the world. The revolutionary next step that will solve all of our problems.
The title of today’s post is a play on the words ‘killer app’, but the ‘app’ part doesn’t refer to the word application. Rather it relates to the Alzheimer’s disease-related protein Amyloid Precursor Protein (or APP). Recently new research has been published suggesting that APP is interacting with a Parkinson’s disease-related protein called Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (or LRRK2).
The outcome of that interaction can have negative consequences though.
In today’s post we will discuss what is known about both proteins, what the new research suggests and what it could mean for Parkinson’s disease.
Seattle. Source: Thousandwonders
In the mid 1980’s James Leverenz and Mark Sumi of the University of Washington School of Medicine (Seattle) made a curious observation.
After noting the high number of people with Alzheimer’s disease that often displayed some of the clinical features of Parkinson’s disease, they decided to examined the postmortem brains of 40 people who had passed away with pathologically confirmed Alzheimer’s disease – that is, an analysis of their brains confirmed that they had Alzheimer’s.
What the two researchers found shocked them:
Title: Parkinson’s disease in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Authors: Leverenz J, Sumi SM.
Journal: Arch Neurol. 1986 Jul;43(7):662-4.
Of the 40 Alzheimer’s disease brains that they looked at nearly half of them (18 cases) had either dopamine cell loss or Lewy bodies – the characteristic features of Parkinsonian brain – in a region called the substantia nigra (where the dopamine neurons are located). They next went back and reviewed the clinical records of these cases and found that rigidity, with or without tremor, had been reported in 13 of those patients. According to their analysis 11 of those patients had the pathologic changes that warranted a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
And the most surprising aspect of this research report: Almost all of the follow up studies, conducted by independent investigators found exactly the same thing!
It is now generally agreed by neuropathologists (the folks who analyse sections of brain for a living) that 20% to 50% of cases of Alzheimer’s disease have the characteristic round, cellular inclusions that we call Lewy bodies which are typically associated with Parkinson disease. In fact, in one analysis of 145 Alzheimer’s brains, 88 (that is 60%!) had chemically verified Lewy bodies (Click here to read more about that study).
A lewy body (brown with a black arrow) inside a cell. Source: Cure Dementia
Oh, and if you are wondering whether this is just a one way street, the answer is “No sir, this phenomenon works both ways”: the features of the Alzheimer’s brain (such as the clustering of a protein called beta-amyloid) are also found in many cases of pathologically confirmed Parkinson’s disease (Click here and here to read more about this).
So what are you saying? Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are the same thing???
This is Sergey Brin.
He’s a dude.
Having brought us ‘Google’, he is now turning his attention to other projects.
One of these other projects is close to our hearts: Parkinson’s disease.
In 1996, Sergey’s mother started experiencing numbness in her hands. Initially it was believed to be RSI, but then her left leg started to drag. In 1999, following a series of tests, Sergey’s mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It was not the first time the family had been affected by the condition: Sergey’s late aunt had also had Parkinson’s disease.
Both Sergey and his mother have had their genome scanned for mutations that increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease. And both of them discovered that they were carrying a mutation on the 12th chromosome, in a gene called Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 or Lrrk2.
Not everyone with this particular mutation will go on to develop Parkinson’s disease, but Sergey has decided that his chances are 50:50. Being one of the founders of a large company like Google, however, has left Sergey with resources at his disposal. And he has chosen to focus some of those resources on Lrrk2 research (call it an insurance policy).
Today, the fruits of some of that research has been published and the results are really interesting:
Title: Phosphoproteomics reveals that Parkinson’s disease kinase LRRK2 regulates a subset of Rab GTPases
Authors: Martin Steger, Francesca Tonelli, Genta Ito, Paul Davies, Matthias Trost, Melanie Vetter, Stefanie Wachter, Esben Lorentzen, Graham Duddy, Stephen Wilson, Marco AS Baptista, Brian K Fiske, Matthew J Fell, John A Morrow, Alastair D Reith, Dario R Alessi, Matthias Mann
Journal: Elife 2016;10.7554/eLife.12813
PMID: 26824392 (This report is openly available for reading on the Elife website)
So what is Lrrk2?
Also known as dardarin (Basque for ‘trembling‘), Lrrk2 is a gene in our DNA that is responsible for making an enzyme. That Lrrk2 enzyme is involved in many different aspects of cell biology. From cellular remodeling and moving (‘trafficking’) various proteins around in the cell, to protein degradation and stabilization, Lrrk2 has numerous roles.
Discovered in 2004, Lrrk2 was quickly associated with Parkinson’s disease because mutations in this gene are amongst the most common in ‘familial Parkinson’s‘ (where an inherited genetic mutation is present in the sufferer; accounting for about 10-20% of all cases of Parkinson’s disease). The most common mutation of LRRK2 gene is G2019S, which is present in 5–6% of all familial cases of Parkinson’s disease, and is also present in 1–2% of all sporadic cases.
Curiously, mutations in Lrrk2 are also associated with increased risk of Crohn’s disease and cancer.
The structure of Lrrk2 and where various mutations lie. Source: Intech
Given the association with Parkinson’s disease, there have been attempts to develop inhibitors of Lrrk2 as a means of treating the condition. These efforts, however, have been hampered by a poor agreement as to which proteins are interacting with Lrrk2.
The goal of the current study was to identify the key proteins that Lrrk2 acts upon.
What did they discover?
Using various techniques to accomplish their task, the scientists began with 30,000 possible targets and gradually whittled that number down to a small group of Lrrk2 targets.
Most importantly, they found that Lrrk2 is deactivating certain proteins that are called ‘Rabs’. The Rab family are heavily involved with trafficking (and that’s not the mafia drug variety!). Trafficking in cells in moving proteins around within the cell itself. And Lrrk2 was found to deactivate 4 Rab family members (3, 8, 10 and 12).
This is a very important result as not only does it provide us with novel Lrrk2 targets, but it also offers us an excellent tool with which we can determine if Lrrk2 inhibitors are actually working – a functioning Lrrk2 inhibitor will lower the activity of Rab 3, 8 10 & 12 and this can be measured.
The results represent a major leap forward in our understanding of Lrrk2 and a significant return on investment for one Mr Sergey Brin.