Researchers have found the molecule responsible for the death of nerve cells and believe they can produce drugs that could block its action.
The discovery was described as a “significant step forward” in the battle against the degenerative disease that affects 120,000 people in the UK, with 10,000 new cases being diagnosed each year.
Bingwei Lu, of Stanford University, California, said: “MicroRNA, whose role in the body has only recently begun to be figured out, has been implicated in cancer, cardiac dysfunction and faulty immune response. But this is the first time it has been identified as a key player in a neurodegenerative disease.”
The new findings published in Nature show the mutation trips up normal activity leading to the overproduction of at least two proteins that can cause brain cells to die. Using the common fruit fly, researchers showed the gene variant results in impaired activity of chemicals which fine tune protein production in cells. Lu and colleagues noticed laboratory flies with the gene variant had high levels of these proteins after developing brain damage associated with Parkinson’s. Toning down the levels of these two proteins prevented the death of dopamine nerve cells in the flies.
“The flies no longer got symptoms of Parkinson’s. This alone has immediate therapeutic implications,” he said. “Many pharmaceutical companies are already making compounds that act on these two proteins, which in previous studies have been shown to be associated with cancer. It may be possible to take these compounds off the shelf or quickly adapt them for use in non-cancer indications such as Parkinson’s,” he added.
Kieran Breen, director of research at Parkinson’s UK, said: “This breakthrough represents a significant step forward towards developing treatments that will actually stop the process of nerve cell death something no current treatments can do.”