The Parkinson’s research community is currently drowning in data related to genetics.
It feels like every time one comes up for air, there is a new study highlighting not one, but half a dozen novel genetic variants associated with an increased risk of developing the condition. This week alone, a new research report has been made available that by itself proposes 39 new genetic risk factors.
The researchers analysed the DNA of 37,700 people with Parkinson’s and 1.4 million (!!!) healthy control subjects and found a total of 92 genetic risk factors for PD.
But what does it all mean? How much influence does genetics have on Parkinson’s?
In today’s post, we will outline the genetics of Parkinson’s, review some of the new studies, and discuss what the new findings mean for Parkinson’s.
When I say the word ‘mutant’, what do you think of?
Perhaps your imagination drifts towards comic book superheroes or characters in movies who have acquired amazing new super powers resulting from their bodies being zapped with toxic gamma-rays or such like.
Alternatively, maybe you think of certain negative connotation associated with the word ‘mutant’. You might associate the word with terms like ‘weirdo’ or ‘oddity’, and think of the ‘freak show’ performers who used to be put on display at the travelling carnivals.
Circus freak show (photo bombing giraffe). Source: Bretlittlehales
In biology, however, the word ‘mutant’ means something utterly different.
What does ‘mutant’ mean in biology?
Each time a cell divides, the DNA inside the resulting pair of cells has changed slightly. These small alterations – known as genetic mutations – provide a method by which an organism can randomly determine traits that may be beneficial.
New research indicates that in certain parts of the brain, post-mitotic (non-dividing) cells are taking on as many as one mutation per week across the span of our lives. This results in thousands of genetic variations accumulating in each cell by the time we eventually pass away in old age.
In today’s post we will review new research and consider what this gradual build up of genetic mutations could mean for our understanding of neurodegenerative conditions, like Parkinson’s.
Coming from the back waters of third world New Zealand, you will understand that sheep hold a very special place in my heart.
I grew up a simple country lad, and each year I had a pet lamb that I would raise and train to do silly tricks in the hope of impressing the judges at the annual agricultural/farm day at school. In addition to instilling me with a crazy fanaticism for the sport (read: religion) of rugby, my parents figured that having a pet lamb each year would teach me a sense of responsibility and a sort of discipline.
I’m not really sure how this practice has influenced my later life, but I certainly do have very fond memories of those early years (the first lamb was named ‘Woolly’, the 2nd lamb was named ‘Woolly2’, the third lamb was actually a goat – bad lambing season – which I named ‘Billy the kid’, the 4th lamb was named ‘MacGyver’,…).
Lots of happy memories.
But as I grew into the teenage years, there was one thing that really bothered me with regards to my pet lambs.
It was that whole negative stigma associated with the ‘black sheep’.
Why, I would wonder, was it the ‘black sheep of the family’ that was the bad kid? And why was the one black sheep in every flock considered the worst of the bunch?
Why was this association applied to sheep?
Why not dogs? Or cows? Why do we pick on sheep?
New research published in the last week provides further experimental support for numerous clinical trials currently being conducted, including one by the biotech company Sanofi Genzyme.
Researchers have demonstrated that tiny proteins which usually reside on the outer wall of cells could be playing an important role in the protein clustering (or aggregation) that characterises Parkinson’s.
In today’s post we will look at this new research and discuss what it could mean for the on going clinical trials for Parkinson’s.
The proverb ‘When the cat is away, the mice will play’ has Latin origins.
Dum felis dormit, mus gaudet et exsi litantro (or ‘When the cat falls asleep, the mouse rejoices and leaps from the hole’)
It was also used in the early fourteenth century by the French: Ou chat na rat regne (‘Where there is no cat, the rat is king’).
And then Will Shakespeare used it in Henry the Fifth(1599), Act I, Scene II:
Westmoreland, speaking with King Henry V, Gloucester, Bedford, Exeter and Warwick
“But there’s a saying very old and true,
‘If that you will France win,
Then with Scotland first begin:’
For once the eagle England being in prey,
To her unguarded nest the weasel Scot
Comes sneaking and so sucks her princely eggs,
Playing the mouse in absence of the cat,
To tear and havoc more than she can eat”
Interesting. But what does any of this have to do with Parkinson’s?
‘Parkinsonisms’ refer to a group of neurological conditions that cause movement features similar to those observed in Parkinson’s disease. They include multiple system atrophy (MSA) and Progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) and idiopathic Parkinson’s.
Newly published research now shines a light on a possible mechanism for differentiating between multiple system atrophy and idiopathic Parkinson’s.
In today’s post we will look at what multiple system atrophy is, review the new research report, and discuss what these results could mean for the Parkinson’s community.
Brain immaging of multiple system atrophy–related spatial covariance pattern (MSARP) and Parkinson disease–related spatial covariance pattern (PDRP). Source: Neurology
For a long time I have been looking to write a piece of Multiple system atrophy.
I have been contacted by several readers asking for more information about it, and the only thing really delaying me – other than the tsunami of Parkinson’s related research that I am currently trying to write posts for – was the lack of a really interesting piece of research to base the post around.
Guess what came into my inbox yesterday:
Title: Familial Parkinson’s point mutation abolishes multiple system atrophy prion replication.
Authors: Woerman AL, Kazmi SA, Patel S, Aoyagi A, Oehler A, Widjaja K, Mordes DA, Olson SH, Prusiner SB.
Journal: Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Dec 26. pii: 201719369.
This is a really interesting piece of research, that continues a line of other really interesting research.
And if it is independently replicated and verified, it will have massive implications for the Parkinson’s community, particularly those affected by Multiple System Atrophy.
But before we deal with that, let’s start with the obvious question:
What is Multiple System Atrophy?
Last week, as everyone was preparing for Christmas celebrations, researchers at the pharmaceutic company Novartis published new research on a gene that is involved with Parkinson’s, called PARKIN (or PARK2).
They used a new gene editing technology – called CRISPR – to conduct a large screening study to identify proteins that are involved with the activation of PARKIN.
In today’s post we will look at what PARKIN does, review the research report, and discuss how these results could be very beneficial for the Parkinson’s community.
As many people within the Parkinson’s community will be aware, 2017 represented the 200th anniversary of the first report of Parkinson’s disease by James Parkinson.
It also the 20th anniversary of the discovery of first genetic mutation (or variant) that increases the risk of developing Parkinson’s. That genetic variation occurs in a region of DNA (a gene) called ‘alpha synuclein’. Yes, that same alpha synuclein that seems to play such a critical role in Parkinson’s (Click here to read more about the 20th anniversary).
In 2018, we will be observing the 20th anniversary of the second genetic variation associated with Parkinson.
That gene is called PARKIN:
Title: Mutations in the parkin gene cause autosomal recessive juvenile parkinsonism.
Authors: Kitada T, Asakawa S, Hattori N, Matsumine H, Yamamura Y, Minoshima S, Yokochi M, Mizuno Y, Shimizu N
Journal: Nature. 1998 Apr 9; 392(6676):605-8
In 1998, Japanese researchers published this report based on 5 individuals from 4 Japanese families who were affected by juvenile-onset Parkinson’s. In family 1, the affected individual was a female, 43 years old, born of first-cousin parents, and her two younger brothers are healthy. Her condition was diagnosed in her teens and it had then progressed very slowly afterwards. Her response to L-dopa was very positive, but L-dopa-induced dyskinesia were frequent. In family 2-4, affected individuals (born to unrelated parents) exhibited very similar clinical features to the subject in family 1. The age of onset was between 18 to 27 years of age.
Using previous research and various techniques the investigators were able to isolate genetic variations that were shared between the 5 affected individuals. They ultimately narrowed down their search to a section of DNA containing 2,960 base pairs, which encoded a protein of 465 amino acids.
They decided to call that protein PARKIN.
PARKIN Protein. Source: Wikipedia
How much of Parkinson’s is genetic?
This week Denali Therapeutics released the results of a phase I clinical trial of their primary product, called DNL-201.
DNL-201 is a LRRK2 inhibitor that the company is attempting to take to the clinic for Parkinson’s disease.
In today’s post we will look at what LRRK2 is, how an inhibitor might help in Parkinson’s, and what the results of the trial actually mean.
Denali. Source: Wikipedia
Denali (Koyukon for “the high one”; also known as Mount McKinley) in Alaska is the highest mountain peak in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet (6,190 m) above sea level. The first verified ascent to Denali’s summit occurred on June 7, 1913, by four climbers Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper, and Robert Tatum.
Tatum (left), Karstens (middle), and Harper (right). Source: Gutenberg
Robert Tatum later commented, “The view from the top of Mount McKinley is like looking out the windows of Heaven!”
More recently another adventurous group associated with ‘Denali’ have been trying to scale lofty heights, but of a completely different sort from the mountaineering kind.
Here at the SoPD, we regularly talk about the ‘bad boy’ of Parkinson’s disease – a protein called Alpha Synuclein.
Twenty years ago this year, genetic variations were identified in the alpha synuclein gene that increase one’s risk of developing Parkinson’s. In addition, alpha synuclein protein was found to be present in the Lewy bodies that are found in the brains of people with Parkinson’s. Subsequently, alpha synuclein has been widely considered to be the villain in this neurodegenerative condition and it has received a lot of attention from the Parkinson’s research community.
But it is not the only protein that may be playing a role in Parkinson’s.
Today’s post is all about TAU.
I recently informed my wife that I was thinking of converting to Taoism.
She met this declaration with more of a smile than a look of shock. And I was expecting the latter, as shifting from apatheism to any form of religious belief is a bit of a leap you will appreciate.
When asked to explain myself, I suggested to her that I wanted to explore the mindfulness of what was being proposed by Lao Tzu (the supposed author of the Tao Te Ching – the founding document of Taoism).
This answer also drew a smile from her (no doubt she was thinking that Simon has done a bit of homework to make himself sound like he knows what he was talking about).
But I am genuinely curious about Taoism.
Most religions teach a philosophy and dogma which in effect defines a person. Taoism – which dates from the 4th century BCE – flips this concept on its head. It starts by teaching a single idea: The Tao (or “the way”) is indefinable. And then it follows up by suggesting that each person should discover the Tao on their own terms. Given that most people would prefer more concrete definitions in their own lives, I can appreciate that a lot of folks won’t go in for this approach.
Personally speaking, I quite like the idea that the Tao is the only principle and everything else is a just manifestation of it.
According to Taoism, salvation comes from just one source: Following the Tao.
Oh and don’t worry, I’m not going to force any more philosophical mumbo jumbo on you – Taoism is just an idea I am exploring as part of a terribly clichéd middle-life crisis I’m working my way through (my wife’s actual response to all of this was “why can’t you just be normal and go buy a motor bike or something?”).
My reason for sharing this, however, is that this introduction provides a convenient segway to what we are actually going to talk about in this post.
You see, some Parkinson’s researchers are thinking that salvation from neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s will come from just one source: Following the TAU.
What is TAU?
Genetic mutations (or ‘variants’) in the Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (or LRRK2; also known as Dardarin) gene are associated with increased risk of Parkinson’s. As a result this gene has become the focus of a lot of genetic research.
But what about LRRK2’s less well-known, rather neglected sibling LRRK1?
In today’s post, we will look at new research that suggests the LRRK siblings could both be involved with Parkinson’s disease.
I recommend to the reader that today’s post should be read with the following music playing in the background:
Inspired by a poem of the same title, English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote ‘The Lark Ascending’ in 1914. It is still to this day, a tune that remains a firm favourite with BBC listeners here in the UK (Source).
On to business:
While the music and the poem are about a songbird, today’s SoPD post deals with a different kind of Lark.
Or should I say LRRK.
This is Sergey Brin.
He was one of the founders of a small company you may have heard of – it’s called “Google”.
Having changed the way the world searches the internet, he is now turning his attention to other projects.
One of those other projects is close to our hearts: Parkinson’s disease.
Recently a Parkinson’s-associated research report was published that was the first of many to come.
It involves the use of a genetic screening experiment that incorporates new technology called ‘CRISPR’.
There is an absolute tidal wave of CRISPR-related Parkinson’s disease research coming down the pipe towards us, and it is important that the Parkinson’s community understands how this powerful technology works.
In today’s post we will look at what the CRISPR technology is, how it works, what the new research report actually reported, and discuss how this technology can be used to tackle a condition like Parkinson’s.
Me and my mother (and yes, the image is to scale). Source: Openclipart
My mother: Simon, what is all this new ‘crispy’ research for Parkinson’s I heard about on the news?
Me: Huh? (I was not really paying attention to the question. Terrible to ignore one’s mother I know, but what can I say – I am the black sheep of the family)
My mother: Yes, something about ‘crispy’ and Parkinson’s.
Me: Oh! You mean CRISPR. Yeah, it’s really cool stuff.
My mother: Ok, well, can you explain it all to me please, this ‘Crisper’ stuff?
CRISPR.101 (or CRISPR for beginners)
In almost every cell of your body, there is a nucleus.
It is the command centre for the cell – issuing orders and receiving information concerning everything going on inside and around the cell. The nucleus is also a storage bank for the genetic blueprint that provides most of the instructions for making a physical copy of you. Those grand plans are kept bundled up in 23 pairs of chromosomes, which are densely coiled strings of a molecule called Deoxyribonucleic acid (or DNA).
DNA’s place inside the cell. Source: Kids.Britannica
Recently I discussed my ‘Plan B’ idea, which involves providing a cheap alternative to expensive drugs for folks living in the developing world with Parkinson’s (Click here for that post).
While doing some research for that particular post, I came across another really interesting bit of science that is being funded by Parkinson’s UK.
It involves Beetroot.
In today’s post we will look at how scientists are attempting turn this red root vegetable into a white root vegetable in an effort to solve Parkinson’s in the developing world.
Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. Source: NationalGeo
During visits to the ancient Roman city of Pompeii (in Italy), tourists are often drawn by their innocent curiosity to the ‘red light’ district of the city. And while they are there, they are usually amused by the ‘descriptive’ murals that still line the walls of the buildings in that quarter.
So amused in fact that they often miss the beetroots.
I’m not suggesting that anyone spends a great deal of time making a close inspection of the walls, but if you look very carefully, you will often see renditions of beetroots.
They are everywhere. For example:
Two beetroots hanging from the ceiling.
The Romans considered beetroot to be quite the aphrodisiac, believing that the juice ‘promoted amorous feelings’. They also ate the red roots for medicinal purposes, consuming it as a laxative or to cure fever.
And this medicinal angle lets me segway nicely into the actual topic of today’s post. You see, in the modern era researcher are hoping to use beetroot for medicinal purposes again. But this time, the beetroot will be used to solve an issue close to my heart: treating people with Parkinson’s in the developing world.
Using beetroot to treat Parkinson’s?