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Fruit fly research reveals protective protein

Research led by Dr Frank Hirth at King's College London has shown that the protein 'alternative oxidase' can protect nerve cells in a fruit fly model of Parkinson's.

Frank Hirth

  • Dr Frank Hirth, King's College London
  • £184,696 over 3½ years
  • Project grant: G-0714
  • Date completed: December 2011

Final report Q&A

Frank (pictured above) answered these questions from Parkinson's UK in his final report.

What inspired you to study this area of Parkinson's research?

"We wanted to understand why dopamine-producing nerve cells are specifically vulnerable in Parkinson's. If we can do this, we may be able to find ways to protect them.

"This could one day lead to treatments that slow or stop the progression of the condition.

Our findings in fruit flies can now be translated into studies in human cells.

What were your goals for the project?

"We set out to make a reliable animal model to study the connection between nerve cells'
energy-producing batteries, known as mitochondria, and Parkinson's.

What have you found?

"We have made fruit flies with faulty mitochondria. This new animal model shows some of the key features of Parkinson's, including movement problems and gradual loss of dopamine-producing nerve cells.

"We used these flies to test proteins for their ability to protect nerve cells.

"We found that 'alternative oxidase', which helps mitochondria to work in animals such as worms and sea squirts, stops the flies' nerve cells from dying.

What are the next steps?

"We hope to study how alternative oxidase protects nerve cells in our model, and work with other researchers to test this protein in mice and human cells.Fruit fly

Adult fruit fly shown on the tip of a pencil"We would like to use our flies to investigate why dopamine-producing nerve cells are particularly sensitive to the effects of faulty mitochondria.

We could also use them to screen new drugs.

Image right: An adult fruit fly

How will your research help people with Parkinson's?

"Our findings in fruit flies can now be translated into studies in human cells.

"If alternative oxidase continues to show promise, it could be developed as a potential treatment."

Sharing this research

The team have published a paper on their exciting findings:

    Humphrey D et al (2012) 'Alternative oxidase rescues mitochondria-mediated dopaminergic cell loss in Drosophila' Human Molecular Genetics; in press

They have presented their work at scientific meetings in the UK, Germany and the US.

They have also visited our Ashford Branch, and they regularly describe their research to non-scientific audiences at university open days.

Date of final report: March 2012