TCD researchers make potential breakthrough in Parkinson’s disease research

13 Nov 2014

Parkin-expressing cells (red) undergoing programmed cell death. Image via Dr Emilie Hollville and Professor Seamus Martin, TCD.

Trinity College Dublin (TCD) researchers have discovered a potential breakthrough in research towards combating Parkinson’s disease related to the Parkin protein which could help us better understand the condition.

This particular breakthrough relates to analysis of the Parkin protein which while known about for decades as a sign of on-set Parkinson’s disease, its effect on the cells of the person with the disease remained a mystery to scientists.

Now, TCD’s Professor Seamus Martin and his team have discovered that in response to specific types of cell damage, Parkin can trigger the self-destruction of damaged nerve cells by switching on a controlled process of ‘cellular suicide’ called apoptosis.

Described by the researchers as a cell’s ‘battery pack’, mitochondria damaged by apoptosis will result in the Parkin protein being activated, which results in either self-destruction or repair of the cells. Which outcome was chosen depended on the degree of damage suffered by the mitochondria.

Their findings suggest that one of the problems in Parkinson’s disease may be the failure to clear away sick nerve cells with faulty mitochondria, to make way for healthy replacements. Instead, sickly and dysfunctional nerve cells may accumulate, which effectively prevents the recruitment of fresh replacements.   

Commenting on the findings, Professor Martin said, “This discovery is surprising and turns on its head the way we thought that Parkin functions. Until now, we have thought of Parkin as a brake on cell death within nerve cells, helping to delay their death. However, our new data suggests the contrary: Parkin may in fact help to weed out injured and sick nerve cells, which probably facilitates their replacement.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic