Alpha synuclein is a protein that is closely associated with Parkinson’s. But exactly if and how it is connected to the neurodegenerative process underlying the condition, remains unclear.
Last week researchers reported that removing a particular form of alpha synuclein in mice results in a very early onset appearance of characteristics that closely resemble the features of Parkinson’s that we observe in humans. This finding has caused some excitement in the research community, as not only does this tell us more about the alpha synuclein protein, but it may also provide us with a useful, more disease-relevant mouse model for testing therapies.
In today’s post, we will discuss what alpha synuclein is, explain which form of the protein was disrupted in this mouse model, review the results of the new study, and look at how tetramer stablising drugs could be a new area of PD therapeutics.
The 337 metre (1,106 ft) long USS Gerald R. Ford. Source: Wikipedia
Imagine you and I are standing in front of the world’s largest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford.
It is a VAST warship – measuring in at 337 metres (1,106 ft) in length, 76 metres (250 feet) in height – and it is a wonder of engineering composed of over a billion individual components.
And as we are standing there, gazing up at this amazing machine, I turn to you and put a nut & bolt into the palm of your hand.
A nut and bolt. Source: Atechleader
You look down at it for a moment, then turn to me, puzzled.
And that is when I say: “I would like you to find (without aid/instructions) where on this ship versions of this particular type of nut and bolt live, and try to determine exactly what functions they have“.
Where would you even start?
What tools would you use for the job? Considering the size and complexity of the vessel, would you simply give up before even starting?
It sounds like a ridiculously daunting task, but this is in effect what neurobiologists are trying to do with their study of the brain. They start with a protein – one of the functional pieces of machinery inside each cell of our body – and then try to determine where in the brain it lives (the easy part) and what it does exactly (the REALLY hard part – most proteins have multiple functions and different configurations).
A good example of this is the Parkinson’s-associated protein alpha synuclein:
Alpha synuclein. Source: Wikipedia
Alpha synuclein is one of the most abundant proteins in our brains – making up about 1% of all the proteins floating around in each neuron in your head – and it is a very well studied protein (with over 9700 research reports listed on the Pubmed search engine with the key words ‘alpha synuclein’).
But here’s the thing: we are not entirely clear on what alpha synuclein actually does inside the cell.
In fact, biologists are not even sure about what the ‘native’ form of alpha synuclein is!
What do you mean?
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?
Graphene is widely being believed to be one of the building blocks of the future. This revolutionary 2D material is being considered for all kinds of applications, including those of a medicinal nature.
This week researchers from the John Hopkins University School of Medicine and Seoul National University have published a report suggesting that graphene may also have applications for Parkinson’s.
The researchers found that exposing the Parkinson’s-associated protein, alpha synuclein, to graphene quantum dots not only prevented the protein from aggregating together into its toxic form, but also destroyed the mature toxic form of it.
A nano-sized silver bullet?
In today’s post, we will look at what graphene quantum dots are, review the new Parkinson’s-related results, and discuss what happens next for this new technology.
Prof Andre Geim and Prof Konstantin Novoselov. Source: Aerogelgraphene
They called them ‘Friday night experiments’.
Each week, two research scientists at the University of Manchester (UK) named Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov held sessions where they would conduct experiments that had little or nothing to do with their actual research.
These activities were simply an exercise in genuine curiosity.
And on one particular Friday in 2004, the two scientists conducted one of the simplest experiments that they had ever attempted – but it was one which would change the world: They took some sticky tape and applied it to a lump of graphite.
What is graphite?
We have previously discussed the importance of the right foods for people with Parkinson’s on this blog – Click here for a good example.
Recently, new data from researchers in Sweden points towards the benefits of a specific component of fish in particular.
It is a protein called β-parvalbumin, which has some very interesting properties.
In today’s post, we discuss what beta-parvalbumin is, review the new research findings, and consider how this new information could be applied to Parkinson’s.
A very old jaw bone. Source: Phys
In 2003, researchers found 34 bone fragments belonging to a single individual in a cave near Tianyuan, close to Beijing (China).
But it was not the beginning of a potential murder investigation.
This was the start of something far more interesting.
Naming the individual “Tianyuan man”, the researchers have subsequently found that “many present-day Asians and Native Americans” are genetically related to this individual. His bones represented one of the oldest set of modern human remains ever found in the eastern Eurasia region.
Tianyuan caves. Source: Sciencemag
But beyond the enormous family tree, when researchers further explored specific details about his jaw bone (or lower mandible as it is called) they found something else that was very interesting about Tianyuan man:
Title: Stable isotope dietary analysis of the Tianyuan 1 early modern human.
Authors: Hu Y, Shang H, Tong H, Nehlich O, Liu W, Zhao C, Yu J, Wang C, Trinkaus E, Richards MP.
Journal: Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Jul 7;106(27):10971-4.
PMID: 19581579 (This research article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
In this study, the investigators analysed the carbon and nitrogen isotopes found within bone collagen samples taken from the jaw bone of Tianyuan man. In humans, the carbon and nitrogen isotope values indicate the sources of dietary protein over many years of life.
The researchers found that a substantial portion of Tianyuan man’s diet 40,000 years ago came from freshwater fish.
Interesting preamble, but what does this have to do with Parkinson’s?
This is one of those posts that I am reluctant to write because there is the very real possibility of it being taken out of context and causing someone to panic. But several readers have asked me to address a new piece of research that was published this week which has them concerned.
Anaesthetics are very useful agents in medicine, but they have long been known to have biological effects beyond simply numbing/sedating individuals. Some of those effects are beneficial, while others….mmm, not so beneficial. And the new research published this week leans towards the latter: Certain anaesthetics apparently induce mutant protein aggregation in neurons and cause stress responses in those brain cells.
In today’s post, we will discuss what anaesthetics are, how (we think) they work, and what the results of this new research actually mean.
William Morton’s first public demonstration. Source: Pinterest
On Friday 16th October 1846, history was made.
On that date, an American dentist named William T. G. Morton (1819-1868) made the first public demonstration of the use of inhaled ether as a surgical anaesthetic.
William Morton. Source: Wikipedia
At this demonstration Dr. John Collins Warren painlessly removed a tumor from the neck of a Mr. Edward Gilbert Abbott. After finishing the operation and Abbott had regained consciousness, Warren asked Abbott how he felt.
John Collins Warren. Source: General-anaesthesia
Abbott replied, “Feels as if my neck’s been scratched.”
Warren then turned to the medical audience and said:
“Gentlemen, this is no Humbug”
This was an obvious shot at an unsuccessful demonstration of nitrous oxide as a anaesthesia the year before (by Horace Wells in the same theatre), which ended with the audience shouting “Humbug!” after they heard the patient groaning with pain during the procedure.
The important thing to appreciate here is the magnitude of Morton’s achievement within in the history of medicine.
Before 16th October 1846, surgical procedures were not very pleasant affairs.
After 16th October 1846,… well, to be honest, they are still not very pleasant affairs, but at least the patient can skip most of the painful parts of an operation.
Interesting. But what does this have to do with Parkinson’s?
On this website, we regularly talk about a Parkinson’s-associated protein called Alpha Synuclein.
It is widely considered to be ‘public enemy #1’ in the world of Parkinson’s research, or at the very least one of the major ‘trouble makers’. It is a curious little protein – one of the most abundant proteins in your brain.
But did you know that there are different ‘species’ of alpha synuclein?
And recently researchers in Florida announced that they had identified an all new species of alpha synuclein that they have called “P-alpha-syn-star” or Pα-syn*.
In today’s post, we will discuss what is meant by the word ‘species’, look at the different species of alpha synuclein, and explore what this new species could mean for the Parkinson’s community.
This microscopic creature is called Macrobiotus shonaicus.
Isn’t it cute?
The researchers that discovered it found it in a Japanese parking lot.
It is one of the newest species of life discovered to date (Click here for the research report). It is a species of Tardigrade (meaning “slow stepper”; also known as a water bear or moss piglet). And for the uninitiated: Tardigrade are remarkable creatures.
Tardigrade. Source: BBC
They measure just 0.5 mm (0.02 in) long, there are approximately 1,150 known species of them, and they have been around for a VERY long time – with fossil records dating back to the Cambrian period (500 million years ago).
The tree of life (try and find the dinosaurs). Source: Evogeneao
But most importantly, tardigrade are EXTREMELY resilient:
- they are the first known animals to survive in hard vacuum and UV radiation of outer space. Some of them can withstand extreme cold – down to temperatures of −458 °F (−272 °C), while other species of Tardigrade can withstand extremely hot temperatures – up to 300 °F (150 °C) (Click here to read more)
- they can withstand 1,000 times more radiation than other animals (Click here for more on that)
- some species of Tardigrade can also withstand pressure of 6,000 atmospheres (that is nearly SIX times the pressure of water in the deepest ocean trench – the Mariana trench! Click here for more on this)
- They are one of the few groups of species that are capable of suspending their metabolism; surviving for more than 30 years at −20 °C (−4 °F – Click here to read about this)
They are utterly remarkable creatures.
Great, but what does this have to do with Parkinson’s? Continue reading
Last year at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, a young high school student named Jeremiah Pate (Image above) took first Place in his category and third prize overall in the Dudley R. Herschbach Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar Award.
This competition involved nearly seven million high school students from all over the world. And by being a winner in the competition, Jeremiah received an all expenses paid trip to attend the Nobel Prize Awards in Stockholm Sweden.
Jeremiah’s award winning project was about his efforts to find a possible cure for Parkinson’s.
In today’s post we will look at the interesting story of how Jeremiah became interested in Parkinson’s and discuss why impatience is a virtue.
We all like stories that involve something bold.
The moon-shot. The last stand against impossible odds. The underrated boxer beating the champ. The enthusiasts putting Gossamer satellites into space. Big-obstacle-being-overcome, that sort of stuff.
I personally really like those stories about individuals with a very specific goal and the determination to let nothing stand between them and achieving it. Those folks who are not satisfied with the status quo and want to change things for the better. Here at the SoPD, we have previously tried to highlight individuals like this within the Parkinson’s research community (for example, Dr Lysimachos Zografos and Sara (soon to be Dr) Riggare). And in keeping with that tradition, today’s post is about a similar individual.
His name is Jeremiah.
And the story begins at the First Baptist Church in Mammoth, Arizona.
In 2018, there is one particular clinical trial that I will be watching, because the drug being tested could have a big impact on certain kinds of Parkinson’s.
The clinical trial is focused on people with cancer and they will be treated with a drug called TVB-2640. TVB-2640 is an inhibitor of an enzyme called fatty acid synthase (or FAS).
In today’s post we will discuss why TVB-2640 might be a useful treatment for certain kinds of Parkinson’s.
Mitochondria and their location in the cell. Source: NCBI
Regular readers of this blog are probably getting sick of the picture above.
I use it regularly on this website, because a.) it nicely displays a basic schematic of a mitochondrion (singular), and where mitochondria (plural) reside inside a cell. And b.) a lot of evidence is pointing towards mitochondrial dysfunction in Parkinson’s.
What are mitochondria?
Mitochondria are the power stations of each cell. They help to keep the lights on. Without them, the party is over and the cell dies.
How do they supply the cell with energy?
They convert nutrients from food into Adenosine Triphosphate (or ATP). ATP is the fuel which cells run on. Given their critical role in energy supply, mitochondria are plentiful (some cells have thousands) and highly organised within the cell, being moved around to wherever they are needed.
What does this have to do with Parkinson’s?
Antidepressants are an important class of drugs in modern medicine, providing people with relief from the crippling effects of depression.
Recently, research has suggested that some of these drugs may also provide benefits to people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. But by saying this we are not talking about the depression that can sometimes be associated with this condition.
This new research suggests anti-depressants are actual providing neuroprotective benefits.
In today’s post we will discuss depression and its treatment, outline the recent research, and look at whether antidepressants could be useful for people with Parkinson’s disease.
It is estimated that 30 to 40% of people with Parkinson’s disease will suffer from some form of depression during the course of the condition, with 17% demonstrating major depression and 22% having minor depression (Click here to read more on this).
This is a very important issue for the Parkinson’s community.
Depression in Parkinson’s disease is associated with a variety of poor outcomes not only for the individuals, but also for their families/carers. These outcomes can include greater disability, less ability to care for oneself, faster disease progression, reduced cognitive performance, reduced adherence to treatment, worsening quality of life, and increased mortality. All of which causes higher levels of caregiver distress for those supporting the affected individual (Click here to read more about the impact of depression in early Parkinson’s).
What is depression?
Wikipedia defines depression as a “state of low mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person’s thoughts, behaviour, feelings, and sense of well-being” (Source). It is a common mental state that causes people to experience loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration.
Importantly, depression can vary significantly in severity, from simply causing a sense of melancholy to confining people to their beds.
What causes depression?