Tagged: flies

“What’s the evolutionary advantage of Parkinson’s?”

Each year King’s College London holds the Edmond J. Safra Memorial Lecture. It is a public event – exploring cutting-edge research on Parkinson’s – held in honour of the late philanthropist and financier, Mr Edmond J Safra, .

I was lucky enough to attend this year’s event (entitled A vision of tomorrow: How can technology improve diagnosis and treatment for Parkinson’s patients?). It highlighted the fantastic research being carried out by Professor Marios Politis and his team.

During the Q&A session of the event though, a question was asked from the audience regarding what the evolutionary advantage of Parkinson’s might be. The question drew a polite chuckle from the audience.

But the question wasn’t actually as silly as some might think.

In today’s post we look at some evidence suggesting an evolutionary advantage involving Parkinson’s.


King’s College London Chapel. Source: Schoolapply

Despite the impressive name, King’s College London is not one of the grand old universities of England.

Named after its patron King George IV (1762-1830), the university was only founded in 1829 (compare this with 1096 for Oxford and 1209 for Cambridge; even silly little universities like Harvard date back further – 1636). The university is spread over five separate campuses, geographically spread across London. But if you ever get the chance to visit the main Strand campus, ask for the chapel and take a moment to have a look – it is very impressive (the image above really doesn’t do it justice).

As I mentioned in the intro, each year King’s College London holds the Edmond J. Safra Memorial Lecture. It is an event that is open to the public and it involves a discussion regarding innovative new research on Parkinson’s. The evening is held in honour of the late Mr Edmond J Safra.

Edmond J. Safra. Source: Edmondjsafrafoundation

This year, Professor Marios Politis and members of his research group were presenting lectures on “How can technology improve diagnosis and treatment for Parkinson’s”. The lectures were very interesting, but the reason I am writing about it here is because during the question and answer session at the end of the lectures, the following question was asked:

“What’s the evolutionary advantage of Parkinson’s?”

Given the debilitating features of the condition, the audience was naturally amused by the question. And there was most likely several people present who would have thought the idea of any evolutionary advantage to Parkinson’s a ridiculous concept.

But it’s not.

And there is actually research to suggest that something evolutionary could be happening with Parkinson’s.

?!?!? What do you mean?

Continue reading

Inspiration from a church in Mammoth

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.


Source: GooglePlay

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.

Continue reading

Hey DJ, I-so-sit-rate!

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.


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Source: Listchallenge

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?

Continue reading

On the hunt: Parkure

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This is Lysimachos.

Pronounced: “Leasing ma horse (without the R)” – his words not mine.

He is one of the founders of an Edinburgh-based biotech company called “Parkure“.

In today’s post, we’ll have a look at what the company is doing and what it could mean for Parkinson’s disease.


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Source: Parkure

The first thing I asked Dr Lysimachos Zografos when we met was: “Are you crazy?”

Understand that I did not mean the question in a negative or offensive manner. I asked it in the same way people ask if Elon Musk is crazy for starting a company with the goal of ‘colonising Mars’.

In 2014, Lysimachos left a nice job in academic research to start a small biotech firm that would use flies to screen for drugs that could be used to treat Parkinson’s disease. An interesting idea, right? But a rather incredible undertaking when you consider the enormous resources of the competition: big pharmaceutical companies. No matter which way you look at this, it has the makings of a real David versus Goliath story.

But also understand this: when I asked him that question, there was a strong element of jealousy in my voice.

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Incorporated in October 2014, this University of Edinburgh spin-out company has already had an interesting story. Here at the SoPD, we have been following their activities with interest for some time, and decided to write this post to make readers aware of them.

Continue reading

Sheffield: flies, fish and a Tigar

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When people in England think of the city of Sheffield, quite often images of a great industrial past will come to mind.

They usually don’t think of the flies, fish and (yes) a Tigar (no, not a typo!) that are influencing Parkinson’s disease research in the city.

In today’s post we will look at how the re-invention of a city could have a major impact on Parkinson’s disease.


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The industrial heritage of Sheffield. Source: SIMT

It is no under statement to say that the history of Sheffield – a city in South Yorkshire, England –  is forged in steel.

In his 1724 book, “A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, the author Daniel Defoe wrote of Sheffield:

“Here they make all sorts of cutlery-ware, but especially that of edged-tools, knives, razors, axes, &. and nails; and here the only mill of the sort, which was in use in England for some time was set up, for turning their grindstones, though now ’tis grown more common”

Sheffield has a long history of metal work, thanks largely to its geology: The city is surrounded by fast-flowing rivers and hills containing many of the essential raw materials such as coal and iron ore.

And given this fortunate circumstance and an industrious culture, the city of Sheffield particularly prospered during the industrial revolution of the mid-late 1800s (as is evident from the population growth during that period).

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The population of Sheffield over time. Source: Wikipedia

But traditional manufacturing in Sheffield (along with many other areas in the UK) declined during the 20th century and the city has been forced to re-invent itself in the early 21st century. And this time, rather than taking advantage of their physical assets, the city is focusing on its mental resources.

Great. Interesting stuff. Really. But what does this have to do with flies, fish and Parkinson’s disease???

Indeed. Let’s get down to business.

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The Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) was officially 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 related neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Since its opening, the institute has published some pretty impressive research, particularly in the field of Parkinson’s disease.

And here is where we get to the flies:

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Pink flies. Source: Wallpapersinhq

We have previously discussed “Pink” flies and their critical role in Parkinson’s research (Click here to read that post).

Today we are going to talk about Lrrk2 flies.

What is Lrrk2?

This is Sergey Brin.

sergey_brin

He’s a dude.

One of the founders of the search engine company “Google”. Having changed the world, he is now turning his attention to other projects.

One of those 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 (Repetitive strain injury). 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 DNA scanned for mutations that increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease. And they discovered that they were both carrying a mutation on the 12th chromosome, in a gene called PARK8 – one of the Parkinson’s disease associated genes. Autosomal dominant mutations (meaning if you have just one copy of the mutated gene) in the PARK8 gene dramatically increase one’s risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

PARK8 provides the instructions for making an enzyme called Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (or Lrrk2).

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The structure of Lrrk2. Source: Wikipedia

Also known as ‘Dardarin (from the Basque word “dardara” which means trembling), Lrrk2 has many functions within a cell – from helping to move things around inside the cell to helping to keep the power on (involved with mitochondrial function).

Fig-2-LRRK2-involvement-in-cellular-mechanisms-Several-data-posit-that-LRRK2-through

Source: Researchgate

NOTE: Curiously, mutations in the PARK8 gene are also associated with Crohn’s disease (Click here and here for more on this) – though the mutation is in a different location for PD.

Now, not everyone with this particular mutation will go on to develop Parkinson’s disease, and Sergey has decided that his chances are 50:50. But he does not appear to be taking any chances though. Being one of the founders of a large company like Google, has left Sergey with considerable resources at his disposal. And he has chosen to focus some of those resources on Lrrk2 research (call it an insurance  policy). He has done this via considerable donations to groups like the Michael J Fox foundation.

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Actor Michael J Fox was diagnosed at age 30. Source: MJFox foundation

So just as Pink flies derive their name from mutations in the Parkinson’s associated Pink1 gene, Lrrk2 flies have mutations in the Lrrk2 gene.

So what have the researchers at Sheffield done with the Lrrk2 flies?

In 2013, the Sheffield researchers published an interesting research report:

brain

Title: Ursocholanic acid rescues mitochondrial function in common forms of familial Parkinson’s disease
Authors: Mortiboys H, Aasly J, Bandmann O.
Journal: Brain. 2013 Oct;136(Pt 10):3038-50.
PMID: 24000005

In this study, the investigators took 2000 drugs (including 1040 licensed drugs and 580 naturally occurring compounds) and conducted a massive screen to identify drugs that could rescue mitochondrial dysfunction in PARK2 (Parkin) mutant cells.

Mitochondria are the power house of each cell. They keep the lights on. Without them, the lights go out and the cell dies.

Mitochondria

Mitochondria and their location in the cell. Source: NCBI

In certain genetic forms of Parkinson’s disease (such as those associated with mutations in the PARK2 gene), the mitochondria in cells becomes dysfunctional and may not be disposed of properly (Click here to read our previous post related to this).

In their huge screen of 2000 drugs, the researchers in Sheffield identified 15 drugs that could rescue the mitochondria dysfunction in the PARK2 skins cells. Of those 15 compounds, two were chosen for further functional studies. They were:

  • Ursocholanic acid
  • Dehydro(11,12)ursolic acid lactone

Neither ursocholanic acid nor dehydro(11,12)ursolic acid lactone are FDA-licensed drugs. We have little if any information regarding their use in humans. Given this situation, the researchers turned their attention to the chemically related bile acid ‘ursodeoxycholic acid’, which has been in clinical use for more than 30 years.

What is Ursodeoxycholic Acid?

Ursodeoxycholic Acid (or UDCA) is a drug that is used to to improve bile flow and reduce gallstone formation. In the USA it is also known as ‘ursodiol’.

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Ursodiol. Source: Wikimedia

Bile is a fluid that is made and released by your liver, and it stored in the gallbladder. Its function is to help us with digestion. UDCA occurs naturally in bile – it is basically a bile acid and can therefore be useful in dissolving gallstones. UDCA has been licensed for the treatment of patients since 1980. UDCA also reduces cholesterol absorption.

So what did the Sheffield researchers find with UDCA?

The researchers tested UDCA on mitochondrial function in PARK2 skin cells, and they found that the drug rescued the cells. They then tested UDCA on skin cells from people with Parkinson’s disease who had mutations in the PARK8 (Lrrk2) gene (G2019S).

The researchers had previously found impaired mitochondrial function and morphology in skin cells taken from people with PARK8 associated Parkinson’s disease (Click here to read more about this), and other groups had reported similar findings (Click here for more on this).

And when they treated the Lrrk2 cells with UDCA, guess what happened?

UDCA was able to rescue the mitochondrial effect in those cells as well!

Obviously these results excited the Sheffield scientists and they set up a collaboration with researchers at York University and from Norway, to look at the potential of UDCA in rescuing the fate of Lrrk2 flies. The results of that study were published two years ago:

Oliver

Title: UDCA exerts beneficial effect on mitochondrial dysfunction in Lrrk2 (G2019S) carriers and in vivo.
Authors: Mortiboys H, Furmston R, Bronstad G, Aasly J, Elliott C, Bandmann O.
Journal: Neurology. 2015 Sep 8;85(10):846-52.
PMID: 26253449        (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it).

The researchers tested UDCA on flies (or drosophila) with specific Lrrk2 mutations (G2019S) display a progressive loss of photoreceptor cell function in their eyes. The mitochondria in the photoreceptor are swollen and disorganised. When the investigators treated the flies with UDCA, they found approximately 70% rescue of the photoreceptor cells function.

The researchers in Sheffield concluded that UDCA has a marked rescue effect on cells from a Parkinson’s disease-associated gene mutation model, and they proposed that “mitochondrial rescue agents may be a promising novel strategy for disease-modifying therapy in Lrrk2-related PD, either given alone or in combination with Lrrk2 kinase inhibitors” (for more information about the Lrrk2 inhibitors they refer, click here).

And the good news regarding this line of research: other research groups have also observed similar beneficial effects with UDCA in models of Parkinson’s disease:

Low1

Title: Ursodeoxycholic acid suppresses mitochondria-dependent programmed cell death induced by sodium nitroprusside in SH-SY5Y cells.
Authors: Chun HS, Low WC.
Journal: Toxicology. 2012 Feb 26;292(2-3):105-12.
PMID: 22178905

This research group also demonstrated that UDCA could reduce cell death in a cellular model of Parkinson’s disease.

And this study was followed by another one from a different research group, which involved testing UDCA in animals:

Salem1

Title: Ursodeoxycholic Acid Ameliorates Apoptotic Cascade in the Rotenone Model of Parkinson’s Disease: Modulation of Mitochondrial Perturbations.
Authors: Abdelkader NF, Safar MM, Salem HA.
Title: Mol Neurobiol. 2016 Mar;53(2):810-7.
PMID: 25502462

These researchers found UDCA rescued a rodent model of Parkinson’s disease (involving the neurotoxin rotenone). UDCA not only improved mitochondrial performance in the rats, but also demonstrated anti-inflammatory and anti-cell death properties.

Given all this research, the Sheffield researchers are now keen to test UDCA in clinical trials for Parkinson’s disease.

Has anyone tested UDCA in the clinic for Parkinson’s disease?

Not that we are aware of, but two groups are interested in attempting it.

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Firstly, the University of Minnesota – Clinical and Translational Science Institute has registered a trial (Click here to read more about this). This trial will not, however, be testing efficacy of the drug on Parkinson’s symptoms. It will focus on measuring UDCA levels in individuals after four weeks of repeated high doses of oral UDCA (50mg/kg/day), and determining the bioenergetic profile and ATPase activity in those participants. Basically, they want to see if UDCA is safe and active in people with Parkinson’s disease.

The CurePD trust (in the UK) is also currently seeking to run a clinical trial for UDCA (Click here for more on this). The group are currently organising the funding for that trial.

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EDITOR’S NOTE HERE: Before we move on, the team at the SoPD would like to say that while UDCA is a clinically available drug, it is still experimental for Parkinson’s disease. There is no indication yet that it has beneficial effects in people with Parkinson’s disease. In addition, UDCA is also is known to have side effects, which include flu symptoms, nausea, diarrhea, and back pain. And individuals have been known to have allergic reactions to UDCA treatment (Click here and here for more on the side effects of UDCA). Thus we must impress caution on anyone planning to experiment with this drug. Before attempting any kind of change in a current treatment regime, PLEASE discuss your plans with a medically qualified physician who is familiar with your case history.


Ok, so that was the flies research, what about the fish? And the… uh, tigar?

Yes. The fish are called Zebrafish (or Danio rerio).

They are a tropical freshwater fish that is widely used in biological research.

Zebrafisch

Biology researchers love these little guys because their genome has been fully sequenced and they has well characterised and testable behaviours. In addition, their development is very rapid (3 months), and its embryos are large and transparent.

And the researchers at Sheffield are using these fish to study Parkinson’s disease.

How did they do that?

tiger

Title: TigarB causes mitochondrial dysfunction and neuronal loss in Pink1 deficiency
Authors: Flinn LJ, Keatinge M, Bretaud S, Mortiboys H, Matsui H, De Felice E, Woodroof HI, Brown L, McTighe A, Soellner R, Allen CE, Heath PR, Milo M, Muqit MM, Reichert AS, Köster RW, Ingham PW, Bandmann O.
Journal: Ann Neurol. 2013 Dec;74(6):837-47.
PMID:
24027110        (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)

Firstly, the group at Sheffield generated zebrafish that had a mutation in the Parkinson’s associated gene ‘PARK6’. This gene provides the plans for the production of a protein called Pink1 (we have previously discussed Pink1 – click here to read more on this).

In normal healthy cells, the Pink1 protein is absorbed by mitochondria and eventually degraded as it is not used. In unhealthy cells, however, this process becomes inhibited and Pink1 starts to accumulate on the outer surface of the mitochondria. Sitting on the surface, it starts grabbing another Parkinson’s associated protein called Parkin. This pairing is a signal to the cell that this particular mitochondria is not healthy and needs to be removed.

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Pink1 and Parkin in normal (right) and unhealthy (left) situations. Source: Hindawi

The process by which mitochondria are removed is called mitophagy. Mitophagy is part of the autophagy process, which 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.

Print

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.

In the case of a PARK6 mutations, Pink1 protein can not function properly with Parkin and the autophagy process breaks down. As a result, the old or unhealthy mitochondria start to pile up in the cell, resulting in the cell getting sick and dying.

Now back to the Zebrafish.

When the Sheffield researchers mutated PARK6 in the zebrafish, they noticed that the fish had a very early and persistent loss of dopamine neurons in their brains. These fish also had enlarged, unhealthy mitochondria and reduced mitochondrial activity.

Given this result, the investigators next wanted to identify which genes have increased or decreased levels of activity as a result of this genetic manipulation. They identified 108 genes that were higher in the PARK6 mutant, and 146 genes had lower activity.

One gene in particular had activity levels 12 times higher in the PARK6 mutant fish than the normal zebrafish.

The name of that gene? TP53-Induced Glycolysis And Apoptosis Regulator (or Tigar).

What is Tigar?

Tigar is a gene that provides the instructions for making a protein that is activated by p53 (also known as TP53).

What does that mean?

p53 is a protein that has three major functions: controlling cell division, DNA repair, and apoptosis (or cell death). p53 performs these functions as a transcriptional activator (that is a protein that binds to DNA and helps produce RNA (the process of transcription) – see our previous post explaining this).

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p53 protein structure, bound to DNA (in gold). Source: Wikipedia

In regulating the cell division, p53 prevents cells from dividing too much and in this role it is known as a tumour suppression – it suppresses the emergence of cancerous tumours. Genetic mutations in the p53 gene result in run away cell division, and (surprise!) as many as 50% of all human tumours contain mutations in the p53 gene.

Apop

Cancer vs no cancer. Source: Khan Academy

In DNA repair, p53 is sometimes called “the guardian of the genome” as it prevents mutations and helps to conserve stability in the genome. This function also serves to prevent the development of cancer, by helping to repair potentially cancer causing mutations….and in this role it is known as a tumour suppression. Obviously, if there is a mutation in the p53 gene, less DNA repair will occur – increasing the risk of cancer occurring.

And finally, in cell death, p53 plays a critical role in telling a cell when to die. And (continuing with the cancer theme), if there is a mutation in the p53 gene, fewer cells will be told to die – increasing the risk of cancer occurring. And in this role p53 is known as a tumour suppression.

In normal cells, the levels of p53 protein are usually low. When a cell suffers DNA damage and stress, there is often an increase in the amount of p53 protein. If this increases past a particular threshold, then the cell will be instructed to die.

If you haven’t guessed yet, p53 is a major player inside most cell, and it controls the activity of a lot of genes.

And one of those genes is Tigar.

But what does Tigar actually do?

So we have explained the “TP53-Induced” part of the “TP53-Induced Glycolysis And Apoptosis Regulator” name, let’s now focus on the “Glycolysis And Apoptosis Regulator”

Tigar is an interesting protein because it is an enzyme that primarily functions as a regulator of the breaking down of glucose (“Glycolysis” involves the conversion of glucose into a chemical called pyruvate). In addition to this role, however, Tigar acts in preventing cell death (or apoptosis).

Increased levels of Tigar protects cells from oxidative-stress induced apoptosis, by decreasing the levels of free radicals. In this way, it promotes anti-oxidant activities.

But hang on a second, anti-oxidant activity should be good for the cell right? Why are the dopamine cells are dying if Tigar levels are increasing in the PARK6 mutants?

Fantastic question!

The answer: TIGAR is also a negative regulator of a process called mitophagy. As we discussed above, mitophagy is the process of removing mitochondria by autophagy. Increases in the levels of TIGAR blocks mitophagy in a cell, and results in an increased number of swollen and unhealthy mitochondria in those cells (Click here to read more about this). These swollen mitochondria are comparable to the enlarged mitochondria identified the PARK6 zebrafish by the Sheffield researchers.

And the researchers believe that this may be the cause of the cell death in the PARK6 zebrafish – the double impact of PARK6 and Tigar induced problems with mitophagy.

NOTE: Problems with mitophagy is believed to be an important mechanism in the development of early-onset Parkinson’s disease (Click here for a recent review on this)

Ok, and what did the Sheffield researchers do next?

Given that there was such a huge increase in Tigar levels in the PARK6 zebrafish, the investigators decided to reduce Tigar levels in the PARK6 zebrafish to see what impact this would have on the fish (and their mitochondria).

Remarkably, reductions of Tigar levels resulted in complete rescue of the dopamine neurons in the PARK6 fish. It also increased mitochondrial activity in those cells, and reduced the activation of the microglia cells, which can also play a role in the removal of sick cells in the brain.

The researchers concluded that the results demonstrate that TIGAR is “a promising novel target for disease‐modifying therapy in Pink1‐related Parkinson’s disease”.

And what are the researchers planning to do next with Tigar?

Prof Oliver Bandmann, the senior scientist who ran the study, has said that they “need to finish studying TIGAR levels in the brains of people with Parkinson’s and want to better understand how this protein is involved in maintaining the cell batteries – called ‘mitochondria'” (Source).

Our guess is that the group will also be conducting studies looking at Tigar reduction in rodent models of Parkinson’s disease to determine if this is a viable target in mammals. If Tigar reduction in rodents is found to be effective, the researchers will probably turn their attention to drug screening studies to identify currently available drugs that can reduce the activity of Tigar. Such a drug would provide us with yet another potential treatment for Parkinson’s disease.

We’ll be keeping an eye out for these pieces of research.

This is all very interesting. What does the future hold for Parkinson’s research in Sheffield?

Well, in a word: Keapstone.

Que?

In March, the University of Sheffield and Parkinson’s UK have launched a new £1 million virtual biotech company called “Keapstone Therapeutics” (see the press release by clicking here).

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Source: Parkinson’s UK

The goal of the company – the first of its kind – is to combine world-leading research from the University with funding and expertise from the charity to help develop revolutionary drugs for Parkinson’s disease.

What is virtual about it? The biotech won’t be building its own labs, employing a team of specialist laboratory scientists, or buying any high-tech equipment (which would all be incredibly expensive). Rather they will form partnerships with groups that do specific tasks the best.

Here is a video of Dr Author Roach (director of Research at Parkinson’s UK) explaining the idea behind this endeavour:

By seeking a collaboration with Sheffield in the creation of a spin-out biotech company, Parkinson’s UK is not only acknowledging Sheffield’s track record, but also making an investment in their future research. While we cannot be entirely sure of what the long-term future holds for Parkinson’s research in Sheffield, we do know that Keapstone will be an important aspect of it in the immediate future.

Could this be a model for the future of Parkinson’s disease research? Only time will tell. We will have a closer look at Keapstone Therapeutics in an upcoming post.

Click here to learn more about the virtual biotech project.

So what does it all mean?

In 2017, we here at the SoPD have decided to begin highlighting some of the Parkinson’s disease research centres as an addition feature on the blog. We have not been approached by the research group in Sheffield or the University itself, and our selection of this city as our first case study was based purely on the fact that we really like what is happening there with regards to Parkinson’s research!

The research group in Sheffield has undertaken multiple lines of research which could potentially providing us with several novel treatment options for Parkinson’s disease. These lines of research have focused not only on clinically available drugs, but also identifying novel targets. We like what they are doing and will keep a close eye on progress there.

And over the next year we will select additional centres of Parkinson’s research based on the same criteria (us liking what they are doing). Our next case study will be the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan (we would hate to be accused of having a UK bias).


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 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. 


The banner for today’s post was sourced from TotalProduceLocal

Pink flies in Leicester at it again

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Imagine discovering a protein that could make the power supply of your cells healthier AND perhaps provide a new therapeutic target for Parkinson’s disease.

That would be a pretty big deal right?

Well, this week, researchers may have found just such a protein. In today’s post we will review their finding and discuss what it means for Parkinson’s disease.


This is Dr Miguel Martins:

miguel_martins

Source: Tox.mrc.ac.uk

He’s a dude.

Dr Martins is a group leader at the MRC toxicology unit in Leicester – a city in the East Midlands of England.

leicester-town-hall-squareLeicester. Source: Keithvazmp

You may have heard of Leicester. Last year their football team had a dream season, miraculously winning the Premier league title despite starting with odds of 5000:1.

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Last season’s winners. Source: Goal.com

This season, however,….well, uh…

Let’s move on, shall we.

Recently we reviewed Dr Martins research group’s work on ‘Pink flies’ and how they survive longer on Niacin rich diets (Click here for that post). He and his group were again publishing research this week, involving new a new study highlighting a protein that may help with keeping mitochondria healthy.

What are mitochondria?

Good question.

Mitochondria are the power house of each cell. They keep the lights on. Without them, the lights go out and the cell dies.

Mitochondria

Mitochondria and their location in the cell. Source: NCBI

You may remember from high school biology class that mitochondria are bean-shaped objects within the cell. They convert energy 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 and highly organised within the cell, being moved around to wherever they are needed.

So what has Dr Martins group found?

This week they published this study:

atf4

Title: dATF4 regulation of mitochondrial folate-mediated one-carbon metabolism is neuroprotective.
Authors: Celardo I, Lehmann S, Costa AC, Loh SH, Miguel Martins L.
Journal: Cell Death Differ. 2017 Feb 17. [Epub ahead of print]
PMID: 28211874       (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)

In the study, the researchers were interested in determining what changes occur in the flies that are missing the Parkinson’s disease associated genes PINK1 or PARKIN, particularly which transcription factors are affected.

What is a transcription factor?

Another good question.

Ok, so you remember your high school science class when the adult at the front of the class was explaining biology 101? And they were saying that DNA gives rise to RNA, RNA gives rise to protein? The central dogma of biology. Remember this?

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The basic of biology. Source: Youtube

Ultimately this DNA-RNA-Protein mechanism is a circular cycle, because the protein that is produced using RNA is required at all levels of this process. Some of the protein is required for making RNA from DNA, while other proteins are required for making protein from the RNA instructions.

A transcription factor is a protein that is involved in the process of converting (or transcribing) DNA into RNA.

Importantly, a transcription factor can be an ‘activator’ of transcription – that is initiating or helping the process of generating RNA from DNA.

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An example of a transcriptional activator. Source: Khan Academy

Or it can be a repressor of transcription – blocking the machinery (required for generating RNA) from doing it’s work.

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An example of a transcriptional repressor. Source: Khan Academy

In their study, Dr Martins and colleagues were looking for changes in the levels of proteins that either initiate or repress transcription, as these are the proteins that are ultimately at the start of the process of making things happen.

And what do Parkin and Pink1 actually do?

About 10% of cases of Parkinson’s disease can be attributed to genetic mutations in particular genes. PINK1 and PARKIN are two of those genes.

People with particular mutations in the PINK1 or PARKIN gene are vulnerable to developing an early onset form of Parkinson’s disease.

As to what the protein that is generated from PINK1 or PARKIN DNA & RNA, well in normal, healthy cells, the PINK1 protein is absorbed by mitochondria and eventually degraded. In unhealthy cells, however, this process is inhibited and PINK1 starts to accumulate on the outer surface of the mitochondria. There, it starts grabbing the PARKIN protein. This pairing is a signal to the cell that this particular mitochondria is not healthy and needs to be removed.

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Pink1 and Parkin in normal (right) and unhealthy (left) situations. Source: Hindawi

The process by which mitochondria are removed is called autophagy. Autophagy is an absolutely essential function in a cell. Without it, old proteins 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 process of the cell.

In the absence of PINK1 and PARKIN – as is the case in some people with Parkinson’s disease who have genetic mutations in these genes – we believe that sick/damaged mitochondria start to pile up and are not disposed of appropriately. This results in the cell dying.

Ok, so the researchers were looking for transcription factors that change in the absence of PINK1 and PARKIN. How did they do this experiment?

They used flies.

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PINK flies. Source: Wallpapersinhq

The researchers took the heads (yes, I know, delightful stuff) of ‘young’ 3-day-old Pink1 and Parkin mutant flies and compared them to ‘aged’ heads from 21- and 30-day-old Parkin and Pink1 mutant flies, respectively. The comparison was specifically looking at transcription factors that change over time.

This analysis revealed a protein called activating transcription factor 4 (or ATF4).

The researchers found that ATF4 levels were higher in both Pink1 and Parkin mutants than levels in control flies. Importantly, the researchers next looked at the genes that this transcription factor (ATF4) was regulating, and they found that ATF4 was encouraging the production of proteins that protect mitochondria. The researchers noticed that when they reduced ATF4 in flies, the levels of these critical mitochondrial proteins dropped as well.

When the researchers reduced the levels of each of these critical mitochondrial proteins in flies, it resulted in impaired climbing ability (suggesting a locomotor deficit) and decreased lifespan. Interestingly, these protective mitochondrial proteins are increased in the Pink1 and Parkin flies, suggesting that efforts to keep the mitochondria healthy are active inside the cells.

Finally, the researchers increased the levels of these protective mitochondrial proteins in the Pink1 and Parkin mutants and they found that the mitochondrial function was improved, and neuronal cell loss was avoided. They concluded that their findings demonstrate a central role for ATF4 signalling in Parkinson’s disease and that this protein may represent a target for new therapeutic strategy.

So what does it all mean?

The researchers behind this study were looking for biological pathways that are altered in genetic forms of Parkinson’s disease and they have identified a protein that is involved with keeping mitochondria healthy. This pathway could represent a new therapeutic target for future treatments, and also opens a new door in our understanding of Parkinson’s disease.

ATF4 is currently not directly targeted by any medications (that we are aware of), but there are drugs in clinical trials that target proteins that subsequently activate ATF4. For example, Oncoceutics Inc. have a drug candidate called ONC201 (currently in phase II trials for brain cancer) which kills solid tumor cells by triggering an stress response which is dependent on ATF4 activation.

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Source: Oncoceutics Inc

We are not for a second suggesting that this is a viable drug for Parkinson’s disease (so PLEASE DON’T rush out and besiege the company for all of their stocks!) – ATF4 should be considered a very experimental target until these results are replicated by independent research groups. We are mentioning ONC201 here simply to indicate that there is a field of research surrounding this potential target (ATF4) and it may be worthwhile for the Parkinson’s community to follow up this line of investigation.

We are assuming that while Leicester football club is struggling, the Martins lab are currently investigating compounds that activate ATF4 (and the other critical mitochondrial proteins), and we will report any follow up work as it comes to hand.

Watch this space.


And if nothing we’ve written here makes any sense, the good folks at Leicester University have kindly provided a short video explaining the research:


Postscript (March 2017):

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The Martins lab have done it again!

This time in the OPEN ACCESS online journal Science Matters, they have published this article:

Matters

Title: Folinic acid is neuroprotective in a fly model of Parkinson’s disease associated with pink1 mutations
Authors: Lehmann S , Jardine J, Garrido – Maraver J, Loh SH, & Martins LM
Journal: Science Matters

In this study, the researchers demonstrated that a folinic acid-enriched diet might delay or prevent the neuronal loss in people with PINK1 associated Parkinson’s disease. They present data suggesting that beginning an intake of Folinic acid in early to middle stages of adulthood prevents the degeneration of dopamine neurons in pink1 mutant flies.

Folinic acid (also known as leucovorin) is a medication used to decrease the toxic effects of chemotherapy drugs. The pharmacokinetics of leucovorin suggests that it readily crosses the blood-brain-barrier (Source), so it would be possible for a clinical trial to be set up in human. Before taking that path, however, more testing is required (ideally in a mammalian model of Parkinson’s disease).

Amazing that all these results are coming from silly old flies though, huh?


The banner for today’s post was sourced from Tox.mrc.ac.uk

Niacin rich diets for Pink flies

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Performer Miley Cyrus says that “Pink isn’t just a colour, it’s an attitude!”

Whether that is true or not is not for us to say.

What we can tell you is that ‘Pink’ is also a gene which is associated with Parkinson’s disease. And not just any form of Parkinson’s disease – people with early onset Parkinson’s (diagnosed before 40 years of age) often have specific mutations in this gene. And recently there has been new research published which may help these particular individuals.

Today’s post will review the new research and look at what it means for people with early onset Parkinson’s disease.


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The actor Michael J Fox requires no introduction.

Especially in the Parkinson’s community where his Michael J Fox Foundation has revolutionised the funding and supporting of Parkinson’s disease research (INCREDIBLE FACT: Since 2000, The Michael J. Fox Foundation has funded more than US$450 MILLION of Parkinson’s disease research) and is leading the charge in the search for a cure for this condition.

Mr Fox has become one of the foremost figures in raising awareness about the disease that he himself was diagnosed with at just 29 years of age.

Wow, so young?

It is a common mistake to consider Parkinson’s disease a condition of the aged portion of society. While the average age of diagnosis floats around 65 years of age, it is only an average. The overall range of that extends a great distance in both directions.

Being diagnosed so young, Mr Fox would be considered to have early onset Parkinson’s disease.

What is early onset Parkinson’s disease?

Broadly speaking there are three basic divisions of Parkinson’s disease across different age ranges:

  • Juvenile-onset Parkinson disease – onset before age 20 years
  • Early-onset Parkinson disease – before age 50 years
  • Late-onset Parkinson disease – after age 50 years is considered

The bulk of people with Parkinson’s disease are considered ‘late-onset’. The Juvenile-onset version of the condition, on the other hand, is extremely rare but cases do pop up regularly in the media (For example, click here). We have previously written about Juvenile-onset Parkinson disease (Click here for that post).

Early-onset Parkinson disease is more common than the juvenile form, but still only makes up a fraction of the overall Parkinsonian population. Some of those affected call themselves 1 in 20 as this is considered by some the ratio of early-onset Parkinson’s compared to late-onset.

How prevalent is early onset Parkinson’s?

In 2009, Parkinson’s UK published a report on the prevalence of Parkinson’s disease in the UK.

Using the General Practice Research Database (GPRD), which houses information about 7.2% of the UK population (or 3.4 million people in 2009), Parkinson’s UK found that the frequency of Parkinson’s disease in the general public was 27 cases in every 10,000 people (or 1 person in every 370 of the general population). The prevalence is higher in men (31 in every 10,000 compared to 24 in every 10,000 among females)

Stats

Source: ParkinsonsUK

As you can see from the table above, the number of people affected by early onset Parkinson’s disease is small when compared to the late-onset population.

Officially, the prevalence of early onset Parkinson’s in Europe is estimated to be 1 in every 8,000 people in the general population (Source: Orphanet). This makes the population of affected individuals approximately 5-10 % of all people with Parkinson’s. Hence the 1 in 20 label mentioned above.

Like older onset Parkinson’s, males are more affected than females (1.7 males to every 1 female case). In addition, women generally develop the disease two years later than men.

So what does ‘Pink’ have to do with early onset Parkinson’s?

First, let’s have a look at ‘Pink’ the gene.

PTEN-induced putative kinase 1 (or PINK1; also known as PARK6) is a gene that is thought to protect cells. Specifically, Pink1 is believed to interact with another Parkinson’s disease-associated protein called Parkin (also known as PARK2). Pink1 grabs Parkin and causes it to bind to dysfunctional mitochondria. Parkin then signals to the rest of the cell for that particular mitochondria to be disposed of. This is an essential part of the cell’s garbage disposal system.

Hang on a second. Remind me again: what are mitochondria?

Mitochondria are the power house of each cell. They keep the lights on. Without them, the lights go out and the cell dies.

Mitochondria

Mitochondria and their location in the cell. Source: NCBI

You may remember from high school biology class that mitochondria are bean-shaped objects within the cell. They convert energy 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 and highly organised within the cell, being moved around to wherever they are needed.

When a cell is stressed by a toxic chemical, the organisation of mitochondria breaks down (as is shown in the image below, where everything except mitochondria (in green) and the nucleus (blue) has been made invisible:

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Mitochondria (green) in health cells (left) and in unhealthy cells (right).
The nucleus of the cell is in blue. Source: Salk Institute

In normal, healthy cells, PINK1 is absorbed by mitochondria and eventually degraded. In unhealthy cells, however, this process is inhibited and PINK1 starts to accumulate on the outer surface of the mitochondria. There, it starts grabbing the PARKIN protein. This pairing is a signal to the cell that this particular mitochondria is not healthy and needs to be removed.

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Pink1 and Parkin in normal (right) and unhealthy (left) situations. Source: Hindawi

The process by which mitochondria are removed is called autophagy. Autophagy is an absolutely essential function in a cell. Without it, old proteins 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 process of the cell.

So why is Pink1 important to Parkinson’s disease?

In 2004 this research article was published:

pink

Title: Hereditary early-onset Parkinson’s disease caused by mutations in PINK1
Authors: Valente EM, Abou-Sleiman PM, Caputo V, Muqit MM, Harvey K, Gispert S, Ali Z, Del Turco D, Bentivoglio AR, Healy DG, Albanese A, Nussbaum R, González-Maldonado R, Deller T, Salvi S, Cortelli P, Gilks WP, Latchman DS, Harvey RJ, Dallapiccola B, Auburger G, Wood NW.
Journal: Science. 2004 May 21;304(5674):1158-60.
PMID: 15087508

The researchers in this study were the first to report that mutations in the Pink1 gene were associated with increased risk of Parkinson’s disease. They found three families in Europe that exhibited a very similar kind of Parkinson’s disease and by analysing their DNA they determined that mutations in the Pink1 gene were directly linked to the condition.

They also looked at where in the cell Pink1 protein was located, noting the close contact with the mitochondria. In addition, they noted that the normal Pink1 protein provided the cell with protection against a toxic chemical, while the mutated version of Pink1 did not. These findings led the researchers to conclude that Pink1 and mitochondria may be involved in the underlying mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease.

And this initial study was quickly followed up 7 months later by this report:

dec-2004

Title: Analysis of the PINK1 gene in a large cohort of cases with Parkinson disease.
Authors: Rogaeva E, Johnson J, Lang AE, Gulick C, Gwinn-Hardy K, Kawarai T, Sato C, Morgan A, Werner J, Nussbaum R, Petit A, Okun MS, McInerney A, Mandel R, Groen JL, Fernandez HH, Postuma R, Foote KD, Salehi-Rad S, Liang Y, Reimsnider S, Tandon A, Hardy J, St George-Hyslop P, Singleton AB.
Journal: Arch Neurol. 2004 Dec;61(12):1898-904.
PMID: 15596610

In this study, the researchers analysed the Pink1 gene in 289 people with Parkinson’s disease and 80 neurologically normal control subjects. They identified 27 genetic variations, including a mutation in 2 unrelated early-onset Parkinson disease patients. They concluded that autosomal recessive mutations in PINK1 result in a rare form of early-onset Parkinson’s disease.

What does autosomal recessive mean?

Autosomal recessive means two copies of an abnormal gene must be present in order for the disease or trait to develop. That is to say, both parents will be carrying one copy of the mutation.

Mutations in the Pink1 gene have now been thoroughly analysed, with many mutations identified (the red and blue arrows in the image below). It is important, however, to understand that not all of those mutations are associated with Parkinson’s disease.

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Looks complicated. Genetic variations in the Pink1 gene. Source: APS

So how do mutations in the Pink1 gene cause Parkinson’s disease?

We believe that the mutations in the Pink1 DNA result in malformed Pink1 protein. This results in Pink1 not being able to do what it is supposed to do. You will remember what we wrote above: Pink1 grabs Parkin when mitochondria get sick and Parkin signals for that mitochondria is be disposed of. Well, in the absence a properly functioning Pink1, we believe that there is a build up of sick mitochondria and this is what kills off the cell. All Parkinson’s disease-associated mutations in the Pink1 gene inhibit the ability of Pink1 grab parkin (Click here for more on this).

And we see this in flies.

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Flies. Source: TheConservation

Flies (or drosophila) are a regular feature in biological research. Given their short life cycle, they can be used to quickly determine the necessity and function of particular genes. Yes, they are slightly different to us, but quite often the same biological principles apply.

Take Pink1 for example.

When scientists mutate the Pink1 gene in flies, it leads to the loss of flight muscles and male sterility. These effects both appear to be due to the kind of mitochondrial issues we were discussing above. One really amazing fact is that the human version of Pink1 can actually rescue the flies that have their Pink1 gene mutated. This is remarkable because across evolution genes begin to differ slightly resulting in some major differences by the time you get to humans. The fact that Pink1 is similar between both flies and humans shows that it has been relatively well conserved (functionally at least).

And given that we see similarities in the Pink1 gene and function between flies and humans, then perhaps we can apply what we see in flies to humans with regards to treatments.

Which brings us (finally!) to the research paper we wanted to look at today:

pink1-et

Title: Enhancing NAD+ salvage metabolism is neuroprotective in a PINK1 model of Parkinson’s disease<
Authors: Lehmann S, Loh SH, Martins LM.
Journal: Biol Open. 2016 Dec 23. pii: bio.022186.
PMID: 28011627              (this article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)

In this study, the researchers analysed Pink1 flies and found alterations in the activity of an enzyme called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (or NAD+). NAD+ is one of the major targets for the anti-aging crowd and there is some very interesting research being done on it (Click here for a good review on this). NAD+ is a coenzyme found in all living cells. A coenzyme functions by carrying electrons from one molecule to another (Click here for a nice animation that will explain this better). The researchers found that Pink1 mutant flies have decreased levels of NAD+.

The researchers were curious if a diet supplemented with the NAD+ would rescue the mitochondrial defects seen in the Pink1 mutant fly. Specifically, they fed the flies a diet high in the NAD+ precursor nicotinamide (being a precursor means that nicotinamide can be made into NAD+ once inside a cell). They found that not only did nicotinamide rescue the mitochondrial problems in the flies, but it also protected neurons from degeneration.

So why is the title of this post talking about Niacin and not nicotinamide?

Niacin (also known as vitamin B3 or nicotinic acid) – like nicotinamide – is also a precursor of NAD+. And in their discussion of the study, the researchers noted that a high level of dietary niacin has been associated with a reduced risk of developing Parkinson’s disease (Click here and here for more on this).

The researchers were quick to point out that while a high Niacin diet may be beneficial, it could not be considered a cure in anyway for people with Parkinson’s disease because although it may be able to slow the cell death it would not be able to replace the cells that have already been lost.

So what does it all mean?

Hang on a second. We’re not finished yet.

Numerous media outlets have made a big fuss about the Niacin diet angle to this research, and they have ignored another really interesting finding:

In their study the researchers mutated another gene in the Pink1 flies which also resulted in improved mitochondrial function and neuroprotection. That gene was Poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase (or PARP). Parp is an enzyme involved in DNA repair and cell division. It is produced in very high levels in many types of cancer and medication that inhibit or block Parp are being tested in the clinic as therapies in those cancers.

Interestingly, blocking Parp has been previously shown to be beneficial for cell survival in models of Parkinson’s disease (Click here and here for more information on this). So in addition to changing to a high niacin diet, it would be interesting to follow up this results as well.

Particularly for people with the Pink1 mutation.

And this is where the results of this study are particularly interesting: they may relate specifically to a small population within the Parkinson’s community – those with Pink1 mutations. It would be interesting to begin discussing and designing clinical studies that focus particularly on people in this population (similar to the Ambroxol study – click here for our post on this).

So what does it all mean? (again)

The results of the present study demonstrate two means by which people with a particular genetic mutation could be treated for Parkinson’s disease. Obviously further research is required, but the idea that we are approaching an age in Parkinson’s disease research where treatments could be personalised is very appealing. It will be interesting to see where all of this goes.


EDITOR’S NOTE:  If nothing we have written here makes any sense, then maybe this video will help:


The banner for today’s post was sourced from Wallpapersinhq