Please do not misread the title of this post!
Compounds targeting the Nociceptin receptor (or NOP) could provide the Parkinson’s community with novel treatment options in the not-too-distant future.
In pre-clinical models of Parkinson’s, compounds designed to block NOP have demonstrated neuroprotective properties, while drugs that stimulate NOP appear to be beneficial in reducing L-dopa induced dyskinesias.
In today’s post we look at exactly what NOP is and what it does, we will review some of the Parkinson’s-based research that have been conducted so far, and we will look at what is happening in the clinic with regards to NOP-based treatments.
On the surface of every cell in your body, there are lots of small proteins that are called receptors.
They are numerous and ubiquitous.
And they function act like a ‘light switch’ – allowing for certain biological processes to be initiated or inhibited. All a receptor requires to be activated (or blocked) is a chemical messenger – called a ligand – to come along and bind to it.
An example of a receptor on a cell. Source: Droualb
Each type of receptor has a particular structure, which is specific to certain shaped ligands (the chemical messenger I mentioned above). These ligands are floating around in the extracellular space (the world outside of the cell), having been released (or secreted) by other cells.
And this process represents one of the main methods by which cells communicate with each other.
By binding to a receptor, the ligand can either activate the receptor or alternatively block it. The activator ligands are called agonists, while the blockers are antagonists.
Agonist vs antagonist. Source: Psychonautwiki
Many of the drugs we currently have available in the clinic function in this manner.
For example, with Parkinson’s medications, some people will be taking Pramipexole (‘Mirapex’ and ‘Sifrol’) or Apomorphine (‘Apokyn’) to treat their symptoms. These drugs are Dopamine agonists because they bind to the dopamine receptors, and help with dopamine-mediated functions (dopamine being one of the chemicals that is severely in the Parkinsonian brain). As you can see in the image below the blue dopamine agonists can bypass the dopamine production process (which is reduced in Parkinson’s) and bind directly to the dopamine receptors on the cells that are the intended targets of dopamine.
There are also dopamine antagonists (such as Olanzapine or ‘Zyprexa’) which blocks dopamine receptors. These drugs are not very helpful to Parkinson’s, but dopamine antagonist are commonly prescribed for people with schizophrenia.
Are there other receptors of interest in Parkinson’s?
Nuclear receptor related 1 protein (or NURR1) is a protein that is critical to the development and survival of dopamine neurons – the cells in the brain that are affected in Parkinson’s disease.
Given the importance of this protein for the survival of these cells, a lot of research has been conducted on finding activators of NURR1.
In today’s post we will look at this research, discuss the results, and consider issues with regards to using these activators in Parkinson’s disease.
Comet Hale–Bopp. Source: Physics.smu.edu
Back in 1997, 10 days after Comet Hale–Bopp passed perihelion (April 1, 1997 – no joke; perihelion being the the point in the orbit of a comet when it is nearest to the sun) and just two days before golfer Tiger Woods won his first Masters Tournament, some researchers in Stockholm (Sweden) published the results of a study that would have a major impact on our understanding of how to keep dopamine neurons alive.
Dopamine neurons are one group of cells in the brain that are severely affected by Parkinson’s disease. By the time a person begins to exhibit the movement symptoms of the condition, they will have lost 40-60% of the dopamine neurons in a region called the substantia nigra. In the image below, there are two sections of brain – cut on a horizontal plane through the midbrain at the level of the substantia nigra – one displaying a normal compliment of dopamine neurons and the other from a person who passed away with Parkinson’s demonstrating a reduction in this cell population.
The dark pigmented dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra are reduced in the Parkinson’s disease brain (right). Source:Memorangapp
The researchers in Sweden had made an amazing discovery – they had identified a single gene that was critical to the survival of dopamine neurons. When they artificially mutated the section of DNA where this gene lives – an action which resulted in no protein for this gene being produced – they generated genetically engineered mice with no dopamine neurons:
Title: Dopamine neuron agenesis in Nurr1-deficient mice
Authors: Zetterström RH, Solomin L, Jansson L, Hoffer BJ, Olson L, Perlmann T.
Journal: Science. 1997 Apr 11;276(5310):248-50.
The researchers who conducted this study found that the mice with no NURR1 protein exhibited very little movement and did not survive long after birth. And this result was very quickly replicated by other research groups (Click here and here to see examples)
So what was this amazing gene called?