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?
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
In American slang, to ‘nix‘ something is to ‘put an end to it’.
Curiously, a protein called NIX may be about to help us put an end to Parkinson’s disease, at least in people with specific genetic mutations.
In today’s post we will look at what NIX is, outline a new discovery about it, and discuss what this new information will mean for people living with Parkinson’s disease.
Sydney harbour. Source: uk.Sydney
Before we start, I would like the reader to appreciate that I am putting trans-Tasman rivalry side here to acknowledge some really interesting research that is being conducted in Australia at the moment.
And this is really interesting.
I have previously spoken a lot about mitochondria and Parkinson’s on this website. For the uninitiated, mitochondria are the power house of each cell. They help to keep the lights on. Without them, the party is over and the cell dies.
Mitochondria and their location in the cell. Source: NCBI
You may remember from high school biology class that mitochondria are tiny bean-shaped objects within the cell. 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.
Like you and I and all other things in life, however, mitochondria have a use-by date.
As mitochondria get old and worn out (or damaged) with time, the cell will recycle them via a process called mitophagy (a blending of the words mitochondria and autophagy – the waste disposal system of each cell).
What does this have to do with Parkinson’s disease?
Well, about 10% of Parkinson’s cases are associated with particular genetic variations that render people vulnerable to developing the condition. Some of these mutations are in sections of DNA (called genes) that provide the instructions for proteins that are involved in the process of mitophagy. Two genes, in particular, are the focus of a lot of Parkinson’s-related research – they are called PARKIN and PINK1.
What do PARKIN and PINK1 do?
In a recent post, I discussed research looking at foods that can influence the progression of Parkinson’s (see that post here). I am regularly asked about the topic of food and will endeavour to highlight more research along this line in future post.
In accordance with that statement, today we are going to discuss Cruciferous vegetables, and why we need a clinical trial of broccoli.
I’m not kidding.
There is growing research that a key component of broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables – called Glucoraphanin – could have beneficial effects on Parkinson’s disease. In today’s post, we will discuss what Glucoraphanin is, look at the research that has been conducted and consider why a clinical trial of broccoli would be a good thing for Parkinson’s disease.
Cruciferous vegetables. Source: Diagnosisdiet
Like most kids, when I was young I hated broccoli.
Man, I hated it. With such a passion!
Usually they were boiled or steamed to the point at which they have little or no nutritional value, and they largely became mush upon contact with my fork.
The stuff of my childhood nightmares. Source: Modernpaleo
As I have matured (my wife might debate that statement), my opinion has changed and I have come to appreciate broccoli. Our relationship has definitely improved.
In fact, I have developed a deep appreciation for all cruciferous vegetables.
And yeah, I know what you are going to ask:
What are cruciferous vegetables?
Cruciferous vegetables are vegetables of the Brassicaceae family (also called Cruciferae). They are a family of flowering plants commonly known as the mustards, the crucifers, or simply the cabbage family. They include cauliflower, cabbage, garden cress, bok choy, broccoli, brussels sprouts and similar green leaf vegetables.
Cruciferous vegetables. Source: Thetherapyshare
So what have Cruciferous vegetables got to do with Parkinson’s?
Well, it’s not the vegetables as such that are important. Rather, it is a particular chemical that this family of plants share – called Glucoraphanin – that is key.
What is Glucoraphanin?
Two months ago a research report was published in the scientific journal ‘Nature’ and it caused a bit of a fuss in the embryonic stem cell world.
Embryonic stem (ES) cells are currently being pushed towards the clinic as a possible source of cells for regenerative medicine. But this new report suggested that quite a few of the embryonic stem cells being tested may be carrying genetic variations that could be bad. Bad as in cancer bad.
In this post, I will review the study and discuss what it means for cell transplantation therapy for Parkinson’s disease.
For folks in the stem cell field, the absolute go-to source for all things stem cell related is Prof Paul Knoepfler‘s blog “The Niche“. From the latest scientific research to exciting new stem cell biotech ventures (and even all of the regulatory changes being proposed in congress), Paul’s blog is a daily must read for anyone serious about stem cell research. He has his finger on the pulse and takes the whole field very, very seriously.
For a long time now, Paul has been on a personal crusade. Like many others in the field (including yours truly), he has been expressing concern about the unsavoury practices of the growing direct-to-consumer, stem cell clinic industry. You may have seen him mentioned in the media regarding this topic (such as this article).
The real concern is that while much of the field is still experimental, many stem cell clinics are making grossly unsubstantiated claims to draw in customers. From exaggerated levels of successful outcomes (100% satisfaction rate?) all the way through to talking about clinical trials that simply do not exist. The industry is badly (read: barely) regulated which is ultimately putting patients at risk (one example: three patients were left blind after undergoing an unproven stem cell treatment – click here to read more on this).
While the stem cell research field fully understands and appreciates the desperate desire of the communities affected by various degenerative conditions, there has to be regulations and strict control standards that all practitioners must abide by. And first amongst any proposed standards should be that the therapy has been proven to be effective for a particular condition in independently audited double blind, placebo controlled trials. Until such proof is provided, the sellers of such products are simply preying on the desperation of the people seeking these types of procedures.
One of the most common observations that people make when they attend a Parkinson’s disease support group meeting is the huge variety of symptoms between sufferers.
Some people affected by this condition are more tremor dominant, while others have more pronounced gait (or walking) issues. In addition, some people have an early onset version, while others has a very later onset. What could explain this wide range of features?
A group of Stanford researchers have recently proposed an interesting new idea regarding our understanding of genetics that could partly explain some of this variability. In todays post I speculate on whether their idea could be applied to Parkinson’s disease.
Earlier this year an interesting study was published in the prestigious journal Nature on the topic of the genetics of height (yes height. Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this):
Title: Rare and low-frequency coding variants alter human adult height
Authors: Marouli E, Graff M, Medina-Gomez C, Lo KS, Wood AR, Kjaer TR, Fine RS, Lu Y, Schurmann C,………at least 200 additional authors have been deleted here in order to save some space…….EPIC-InterAct Consortium; CHD Exome+ Consortium; ExomeBP Consortium; T2D-Genes Consortium; GoT2D Genes Consortium; Global Lipids Genetics Consortium; ReproGen Consortium; MAGIC Investigators, Rotter JI, Boehnke M, Kathiresan S, McCarthy MI, Willer CJ, Stefansson K, Borecki IB, Liu DJ, North KE, Heard-Costa NL, Pers TH, Lindgren CM, Oxvig C, Kutalik Z, Rivadeneira F, Loos RJ, Frayling TM, Hirschhorn JN, Deloukas P, Lettre G.
Journal: Nature. 2017 Feb 9;542(7640):186-190.
In this study, the researchers – who are part of the GIANT consortium – were analysing DNA collected from over 700,000 people and trying to determine what genetic differences could influence height.
Height is not important for music. Source: Imgur
Why study height?
Good question. There are several reasons:
Firstly, it is easy to accurately measure. Second, the researchers believed that if we can master the complex genetics of something simple like height maybe what we learn will give us a blueprint for how we should study more complex medical disorders that have thus far eluded our complete understanding.
On the 27th June, 1997, a research report was published in the prestigious scientific journal ‘Science’ that would change the world of Parkinson’s disease research forever.
And I am not exaggerating here.
The discovery that genetic variations in a gene called alpha synuclein could increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease opened up whole new areas of research and eventually led to ongoing clinical trials of potential therapeutic applications.
Todays post recounts the events surrounding the discovery, what has happened since, and we will discuss where things are heading in the future.
It is fair to say that 1997 was an eventful year.
In world events, President Bill Clinton was entering his second term, Madeleine Albright became the first female Secretary of State for the USA, Tony Blair became the prime minister of the UK, and Great Britain handed back Hong Kong to China.
#42 – Bill Clinton. Source: Wikipedia
In the world of entertainment, author J. K. Rowling’s debut novel “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was published by Bloomsbury, and Teletubbies, South Park, Ally McBeal, and Cold Feet (it’s a British thing) all appeared on TV for the first time, amusing and entertaining the various age groups associated with them.
South Park. Source: Hollywoodreporter
Musically, rock band Blur released their popular hit song ‘Song 2‘ (released 7th April), “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by the Verve entered the UK charts at number 2 in June, and rapper Notorious B.I.G. was killed in a drive by shooting. Oh, and let’s not forget that “Tubthumping” (also known as “I Get Knocked Down”) by Chumbawamba was driving everybody nuts for its ubiquitous presence.
And at the cinemas, no one seemed to care about anything except a silly movie called Titanic.
Titanic. Source: Hotspot
Feeling old yet?
In this post we discuss several recently published research reports suggesting that Parkinson’s disease may be an autoimmune condition. “Autoimmunity” occurs when the defence system of the body starts attacks the body itself.
This new research does not explain what causes of Parkinson’s disease, but it could explain why certain brain cells are being lost in some people with Parkinson’s disease. And such information could point us towards novel therapeutic strategies.
The first issue of Nature. Source: SimpleWikipedia
The journal Nature was first published on 4th November 1869, by Alexander MacMillan. It hoped to “provide cultivated readers with an accessible forum for reading about advances in scientific knowledge.” It has subsequently become one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, with an online readership of approximately 3 million unique readers per month (almost as much as we have here at the SoPD).
Each Wednesday afternoon, researchers around the world await the weekly outpouring of new research from Nature. And this week a research report was published in Nature that could be big for the world of Parkinson’s disease. Really big!
On the 21st June, this report was published:
Title: T cells from patients with Parkinson’s disease recognize α-synuclein peptides
Authors: Sulzer D, Alcalay RN, Garretti F, Cote L, Kanter E, Agin-Liebes J, Liong C, McMurtrey C, Hildebrand WH, Mao X, Dawson VL, Dawson TM, Oseroff C, Pham J, Sidney J, Dillon MB, Carpenter C, Weiskopf D, Phillips E, Mallal S, Peters B, Frazier A, Lindestam Arlehamn CS, Sette A
Journal: Nature. 2017 Jun 21. doi: 10.1038/nature22815.
In their study, the investigators collected blood samples from 67 people with Parkinson’s disease and from 36 healthy patients (which were used as control samples). They then exposed the blood samples to fragments of proteins found in brain cells, including fragments of alpha synuclein – this is the protein that is so closely associated with Parkinson’s disease (it makes regular appearances on this blog).
What happened next was rather startling: the blood from the Parkinson’s patients had a strong reaction to two specific fragments of alpha synuclein, while the blood from the control subjects hardly reacted at all to these fragments.
In the image below, you will see the fragments listed along the bottom of the graph (protein fragments are labelled with combinations of alphabetical letters). The grey band on the plot indicates the two fragments that elicited a strong reaction from the blood cells – note the number of black dots (indicating PD samples) within the band, compared to the number of white dots (control samples). The numbers on the left side of the graph indicate the number of reacting cells per 100,000 blood cells.
The investigators concluded from this experiment that these alpha synuclein fragments may be acting as antigenic epitopes, which would drive immune responses in people with Parkinson’s disease and they decided to investigate this further.