Researchers solve structure of key Parkinson's protein

Researchers at Dundee University have solved the 3D structure of PINK1, a protein that plays a protective role in brain cells.

The discovery could help scientists to develop new and better treatments that slow the progression of the condition.

Protecting brain cells

Inherited changes in the PINK1 gene - that stop the protein from working - were first linked to the condition by Parkinson's UK researchers in 2004. They are now known to be one of the most common causes of early-onset Parkinson's.

The PINK1 protein plays an important role in protecting brain cells against stress by detecting damage to the mitochondria, which are the batteries of cells. It responds to damage by interacting with 2 other key proteins to activate a protective pathway.

Researchers believe drugs that switch the protein back on could protect cells in Parkinson's. But a lack of understanding about the structure and function of the enzyme has hampered efforts to design new and better drugs.

What the researchers did

The team at Dundee University used a technique called x-ray crystallography, which involves making crystals of the protein and then using an x-ray machine to determine the 3D structure of the crystal.

The researchers also found that PINK1 has unique control elements that allow it to interact with two other proteins, ubiquitin and Parkin. These findings could pave the way to develop drugs that target the protective properties of PINK1.

Professor David Dexter, Deputy Director of Research at Parkinson's UK, comments:

"Drugs that can switch the PINK1/parkin pathway back on may be able to slow, stop or even reverse nerve cell death, not only in people who have these rare inherited forms of the condition, but also those with non-inherited Parkinson's.

"For the first time, this research gives us a view of what the PINK1 protein looks like and how changes in the gene can prevent the PINK1 protein working properly."