FRANCO-Belgian researchers have identified a single spaghetti-shaped protein that causes Parkinson’s disease and say that a linguini-like form also causes the less common Multiple System Atrophy.
Parkinson’s disease affects about 200 people per 100,000 in the UK, while MSA affects about five people per 100,000 and the researchers say the discovery could open the way to finding drug treatments to arrest these and other neurodegenerative disorders.
However, without the development of regenerative cell techniques the discovery can make little difference to the lives of Parkinson’s sufferers such as Michael J Fox, Billy Connolly or Muhammad Ali as brain cell death is too advanced.
KU Leuven neurobiologists worked with the French CNRS and the University of Antwerp on the discovery of “aggregates of a single protein known as alpha-synuclein”.
They found the shape of these aggregates determined whether a patient developed Parkinson's or MSA: cylinders lead to Parkinson’s and ribbons to MSA. Another disorder, dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB), is also concerned.
The cylinders or ribbons are thought to disrupt communication between brain cells, killing the cells. Professor Veerle Baekelandt of KU Leuven said the discovery was “just the tip of the iceberg”.
She added: “When alpha-synuclein aggregates accumulate within a brain cell, they interfere with the normal functioning of the cell. The protein aggregates disrupt the communication between brain cells, resulting in cell death.”
In a statement, doctoral researcher Wouter Peelaerts, also from KU Leuven, said it was like building a house: “With the same building blocks – in this case the alpha-synuclein protein – you can create many different structures.”
Professor Ronald Melki and colleagues from CNRS in France first isolated several forms of fibres: cylinder-shaped fibres reminiscent of spaghetti and broad ribbons that resemble linguini.
Dr Peelaerts told Bioscience Technology they injected these strains separately into the brain and blood stream of rats. They noticed the rats developed different symptoms: the 'spaghetti' induced Parkinson's disease while the linguini caused MSA symptoms.
He added: “We suspect that more fibres with different shapes and effects are waiting to be discovered, apart from the two that we examined in this study. In any case, our findings open up possibilities for the development of new treatments.
“A drug that counteracts the development of aggregates could be used to treat a whole range of brain diseases."
Cell photo with fibres - © Luc Bousset CNRS