Monday, October 24, 2011

Structure of 'Parkinson's protein' revealed

The protein that is thought to be the key component in Parkinson's disease has finally been modelled, revealing its structure to us. Now that we know what α-synuclein, the protein in question, looks like, we can start developing new therapies, that specifically target this compound. This could give rise to new drugs for Parkinson's disease, that hopefully reduce the symptoms, and maybe even cure the disease. Though, the question remains what the exact role of α-synuclein is in Parkinson's, as the underlying pathology has not yet been unravelled.
α-synuclein model.
A model of α-synuclein was made with the computer, showing the 3d-structure of the protein. This allows us to see how it is folded, and which specific spots, called epitopes, are a possible target for new drugs. However, there is much more research needed about the underlying physiology before the development of new therapies can start: currently it is only known that α-synuclein is involved with Parkinson's, but not what it actually does.

Doctors make the diagnosis of Parkinson's after death of the patient, when the misbehaving α-synuclein lose their shape, and form clumps of protein called Lewy bodies. Why this always happens in patients with Parkinson's remains unknown. Because the structure of α-synuclein is now fully elucidated, research can be done on how changes in the protein result in post-mortem formation of Lewy bodies, and how this relates to the disease. So far, scientists have only seen the pathological and morphological end-result of Parkinson's, in the form of protein clumps, that do not have the original α-synuclein shape anymore. 

Parkinson's is caused by dysfunction of a group of brain cells, called neurons, that produce a chemical transmitter called dopamine. The brain needs dopamine to transport various signals throughout the brain. Without it, several brain functions will become dysfunctional. In Parkinson's, death of the dopamine-producing cells causes tremors, shaking and trouble with movement. This is caused by impaired ability of the brain to properly transmit signals required for coordinated movement. 

Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson's. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that new possibilities for drug development emerge. Revealing the structure of one of the most important proteins involved in the disease is a first step that could eventually give rise to new drugs for Parkinson's.

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