New research uncovers structures of Parkinson’s-related protein

Scientists at the University Bath have improved our understanding of the potentially toxic structures that the protein, alpha-synuclein, can form.

Results published in Nature Partner Journal, Parkinson’s disease, have identified 4 structures of the alpha-synuclein protein that have never been observed before.

Better understanding of these structures is important for designing new drugs that target this problematic protein. This could be key to unlocking treatments that slow the progression of Parkinson’s.

Proteins and Parkinson’s

Protein molecules are created as simple strings that must be folded in the correct way to give their 3D structure - like a flat-pack box that can be folded into its final, functional shape.

Some proteins are known to form different shapes and researchers have been interested in the structures of alpha-synuclein for some time. They have suggested that certain forms of this protein are responsible for its toxic nature, while others may have protective properties. 

Previous research investigating the structures of this protein has been done in environments that do not recreate the conditions inside a cell. Importantly, this environment likely impacts on how alpha-synuclein behaves. However, in this latest research study, the team added important fat molecules, called lipids, to better recreate a cell-like environment and uncover structures of the protein that may be causing Parkinson’s. The research team believe this finding will open the door for further work to identify which forms of the protein are problematic, and to develop treatments that target them.

Dr Beckie Port, Research Manager at Parkinson’s UK, said: 

“Alpha-synuclein is a protein that was first linked to Parkinson’s 20 years ago. Since then Parkinson’s UK has invested more than £3.5 million in understanding the role of this protein in Parkinson’s which could hold the key to finding a cure for the condition. 

“The protein is known to form different structures, and researchers have become increasingly interested in which forms of the protein may be toxic and linked to the spread and loss of brain cells in Parkinson's. This is essential in order to develop treatments that target the right form of the protein.

“By advancing our understanding of the different structures of the protein that are likely to be present inside brain cells, this study helps pave the way for developing treatments that may one day stop the progression of Parkinson's.”

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