Molecular 'on/off' switch for Parkinson's discovered by Dundee
23 May 2012
Our scientists at the University of Dundee have discovered a new
molecular switch that may be the key to why nerve cells die in
We are now beginning to piece together this complex genetic puzzle which will pave the way towards new and better treatments for Parkinson's.
Dr Kieran Breen, Director of Research and Innovation
Around 5% of people with Parkinson's inherit genes that directly
cause the condition. And this research sheds new light on how
genetic mutations in a gene called PINK1 lead to rare early onset
forms of Parkinson's. This could lead to new treatments.
The research was part-funded by Parkinson's UK and is
published today in the journal Open Biology.
Unlocking the secrets of genes
People with Parkinson's don't have enough of a chemical called
dopamine because some nerve cells in their brain have died.
Over the last decade, several genes have been linked to
Parkinson's. But working out what these genes do in the brain has
been a major challenge.
The PINK1 gene was
identified as a key player by Parkinson's UK-funded researchers
back in 2004, but it's taken almost a decade to work out why
the PINK1 gene is so crucial.
PINK1 acts as a switch
Most genes make molecules called proteins. And it is
proteins that do all the work inside our cells.
So understanding how changes in the PINK1 gene affects the
behaviour of the PINK1 protein may explain why nerve cells die in
Parkinson's - and find ways to save them.
The job of some proteins inside cells is to switch other
important proteins on or off. The PINK1 protein switches on another
vital protein called parkin (also linked to Parkinson's), whose
main job is to keep cells healthy by removing damaged proteins.
So in people with Parkinson's who have a mutation in the PINK1
or Parkin genes this crucial waste disposal pathway does not get
Drugs that can switch the PINK1/parkin pathway back on may be
able to slow, stop or even reverse nerve cell death. This is not
only in people who have these rare inherited forms of the
condition, but also those with non-inherited Parkinson's.
Taking us closer to a cure
Our director of
research and innovation, Dr Kieran Breen (pictured right),
"We are now beginning to piece together this complex genetic
puzzle which will pave the way towards new and better treatments
"Current treatments only mask symptoms by boosting the levels of
dopamine in the brain, and they cannot slow or stop the development
on the condition.
"This breakthrough offers real hope for developing treatments
that tackle the root causes of Parkinson's by targeting the genes
involved in the condition, which could have the potential for
halting Parkinson's in its tracks."