April 1, 2014

Have We Found the Chemical “Missing Link” to Prevent Parkinson’s?

Scientists at the University of Dundee in Scotland have just discovered a “chemical messenger” that might play a role in treating – or even preventing – Parkinson’s. Their work is published in Biochemical Journal.

Dr. Miratul Muqit and his team at Dundee – who made this new finding -- had previously identified the role played by two different genes, PINK1 and Parkin. PINK1, the team found, somehow “switches on” the Parkin enzyme, which protects neurons from deteriorating and dying – the origin of Parkinson’s disease.

If mutations occur that disrupt that key molecular process, the brain cell protection the genes provide is greatly compromised, and cells die. The scientists just didn’t know exactly how the two genes interacted chemically to create that protection.

Now they know.

Dr. Muqit explained it this way: "Our new work suggests a chemical messenger called phospho-ubiquitin, is protective and can’t be made in Parkinson’s patients with genetic mutations in PINK1. This leaves their brain cells vulnerable to stress and likely to trigger cell death."

The implications are clear: if scientists can replicate the structure of phosphor-ubiquitin and introduce it into the neural network in order to activate the Parkin gene to create the protective enzyme, Parkinson’s disease (and perhaps other neurological conditions) might be prevented.

Let the Additional Studies Begin
First, studies will need to show, for instance, that people with Parkinson’s exhibit low levels of phosphor-ubiquitin. If they do, the path toward further study – and treatment -- opens up.

Claire Bale, Research Communications Manager at Parkinson’s UK, said, 
This exciting research has revealed the ‘missing link’ between two key proteins known to be important in Parkinson’s…. This discovery provides a completely new avenue for developing treatments that can tackle the root causes of brain cell death and could ultimately take us closer to a cure for Parkinson’s.

David Carling, editorial chairman for Biochemical Journal (which published the study’s discovery) couldn’t mask his enthusiasm:
The study by Dr. Muqit and colleagues provides a breakthrough in understanding how two proteins, previously shown to play important roles in Parkinson's disease, interact with one another. This new work opens up a number of avenues for further research and will help in identifying drugs aimed at combatting this devastating disease.

At this point, we can’t know how this new information correlates with other established “explanations” for the causes of Parkinson’s, like amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Would proper levels of this just-identified chemical messenger -- phosphor-ubiquitin -- prevent damaging plaques and tangles from forming?

We’ll have to wait and see.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research – along with the Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust, Parkinson’s UK, the J. Macdonald Menzies Charitable Trust  -- provided funding for this research.

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Here’s the March 29, 2014 bulletin from the University of Dundee announcing these results:

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