Published on May 6, 2012 in the online journal Nature, the study describes a new and apparently successful protein therapy for mice with prion disease. Prions are transmissible pathogens that cause neuro-degenerative diseases in animals… and humans.
Here’s what happens to affected mice: proteins begin building up in the brain – like plaques – in unnatural, “folded” ways. As the faulty proteins accumulated – endangering the healthy operation of the brain – the rodents’ defense systems triggered a response to shut off the creation of new proteins. This action halted the accretion of new, misshapen proteins – a good thing -- but it also shut off the creation of proteins generally, which the mice brains needed to function normally. As a result, the rodents experienced neuro-degeneration: the irreversible death of brain cells – ultimately a fatal condition.
Researchers discovered that they could “reboot” protein creation by injecting the mice with a new protein. Prions continued to accumulate, but new protein creation extended the life of treated mice. This new procedure did not cure diseased mice, and in fact only extended their lives a week longer than untreated mice.
Still, it’s a start. Giovanna Mallucci, the research leader at Leicester University in England, said their results might provide a "way forward in how we treat other disorders," like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Said Bristol University professor Andy Randall:
This is a fascinating piece of work. It will be interesting to see if similar processes occur in some of the common diseases with such deposits, for example Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Furthermore, if this is the case, can modulating this same pathway be a route to new therapeutic approaches in these more prevalent conditions that afflict many millions of sufferers around the world? Ultimately only more research will tell us this.Dr Eric Karran, the director of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, added the usual cautionary note:
The findings present the appealing concept that one treatment could have benefits for a range of different diseases; however the idea is in its early stages. The research focuses on the effects of the prion protein and we would need to see the same results confirmed in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's to really strengthen the evidence.