Posts tagged proteins
Posts tagged proteins
Scientists have identified a gene that keeps our nerve fibers from clogging up. Researchers in Ken Miller’s laboratory at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF) found that the unc-16 gene of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans encodes a gatekeeper that restricts flow of cellular organelles from the cell body to the axon, a long, narrow extension that neurons use for signaling. Organelles clogging the axon could interfere with neuronal signaling or cause the axon to degenerate, leading to neurodegenerative disorders. This research, published in the May 2013 Genetics Society of America’s journal GENETICS, adds an unexpected twist to our understanding of trafficking within neurons.
Proteins equivalent to UNC-16 are present in the neurons of all animals, including humans And are known to interact with proteins associated with neurodegenerative disorders in humans (Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia) and mice (Legs at Odd Angles). However, the underlying cause of these disorders is not well understood.
“Our UNC-16 study provides the first insights into a previously unrecognized trafficking system that protects axons from invasion by organelles from the cell soma,” Dr. Miller said. “A breakdown in this gatekeeper may be the underlying cause of this group of disorders,” he added.
The use of the model organism C. elegans, a tiny, translucent roundworm with only 300 neurons, enabled the discovery because the researchers were able to apply complex genetic techniques and imaging methods in living organisms, which would be impossible in larger animals. Dr. Miller’s team tagged organelles with fluorescent proteins and then used time-lapse imaging to follow the movements of the organelles. In normal axons, organelles exited the cell body and entered the initial segment of the axon, but did not move beyond that. In axons of unc-16 mutants, the organelles hitched a ride on tiny motors that carried them deep into the axon, where they accumulated.
Dr. Miller acknowledges there are still a lot of unanswered questions. His lab is currently investigating how UNC-16 performs its crucial gatekeeper function by looking for other mutant worms with similar phenotypes. A Commentary on the article, also published in this issue of GENETICS, calls the work “provocative”, and highlights several important questions prompted by this pioneering study.
“This research once again shows how studies of simple model organisms can bring insight into complex neurodegenerative diseases in humans,” said Mark Johnston, Editor-in-Chief of the journal GENETICS. “This kind of basic research is necessary if we are to understand diseases that can’t easily be studied in more complex animals.”
A protein known to be a key player in the development of Parkinson’s disease is able to enter and harm cells in the same way that viruses do, according to a Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine study.
The protein is called alpha-synuclein. The study shows how, once inside a neuron, alpha synuclein breaks out of lysosomes, the digestive compartments of the cell. This is similar to how a cold virus enters a cell during infection. The finding eventually could lead to the development of new therapies to delay the onset of Parkinson’s disease or halt or slow its progression, researchers said.
The study by virologist Edward Campbell, PhD, and colleagues, was published April 25, 2013 in the journal PLOS ONE.
Alpha-synuclein plays a role in the normal functioning of healthy neurons. But in Parkinson’s disease patients, the protein turns bad, aggregating into clumps that lead to the death of neurons in the area of the brain responsible for motor control. Previous studies have shown that these protein aggregates can enter and harm cells. Campbell and colleagues showed how alpha synuclein can bust out of lysosomes, small structures that collectively serve as the cell’s digestive system. The rupture of these bubble-like structures, known as vesicles, releases enzymes that are toxic to the rest of the cell.
“The release of lysosomal enzymes is sensed as a ‘danger signal’ by cells, since similar ruptures are often induced by invading bacteria or viruses,” said Chris Wiethoff, a collaborator on the study. “Lysosomes are often described as ‘suicide bags’ because when they are ruptured by viruses or bacteria, they induce oxidative stress that often leads to the death of the affected cell.”
In a viral or bacterial infection, the deaths of such infected cells may overall be a good thing for the infected individual. But in Parkinson’s disease, this same protective mechanism may lead to the death of neurons and enhance the spread of alpha-synuclein between cells in the brain, Campbell said. “This might explain the progressive nature of Parkinson’s disease. More affected cells leads to the spread of more toxic alpha-synuclein aggregates in the brain,” Campbell said. “This is very similar to what happens in a spreading viral infection.”
Campbell stressed that these studies need to be followed up and confirmed in other models of Parkinson’s disease. “Using cultured cells, we have made some exciting observations. However, we need to understand how lysosomal rupture is affecting disease progression in animal models of Parkinson’s disease and, ultimately, the brains of people affected by Parkinson’s disease. Can we interfere with the ability of alpha-synuclein to rupture lysosomes in these settings? And will that have a positive effect on disease progression? These are the questions we are excited to be asking next.”
Jeffrey H. Kordower, PhD, professor of neurological sciences, professor of neurosurgery and director of the Research Center for Brain Repair at Rush University Medical Center, said the study “is an important finding by a group of investigators who are beginning to make their impact in the field of Parkinson’s disease. This paper adds to the growing concept that alpha-synuclein, a main culprit in the cause of Parkinson’s disease, can transfer from cell to cell. This paper elegantly puts a mechanism behind such a transfer. The findings will help shape the direction of Parkinson’s disease research for years to come.”
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have described a missing link in understanding how damage to the body’s cellular power plants leads to Parkinson’s disease and, perhaps surprisingly, to some forms of heart failure.
These cellular power plants are called mitochondria. They manufacture the energy the cell requires to perform its many duties. And while heart and brain tissue may seem entirely different in form and function, one vital characteristic they share is a massive need for fuel.
Working in mouse and fruit fly hearts, the researchers found that a protein known as mitofusin 2 (Mfn2) is the long-sought missing link in the chain of events that control mitochondrial quality.
The findings are reported April 26 in the journal Science.
The new discovery in heart cells provides some explanation for the long known epidemiologic link between Parkinson’s disease and heart failure.
“If you have Parkinson’s disease, you have a more than two-fold increased risk of developing heart failure and a 50 percent higher risk of dying from heart failure,” says senior author Gerald W. Dorn II, MD, the Philip and Sima K. Needleman Professor of Medicine. “This suggested they are somehow related, and now we have identified a fundamental mechanism that links the two.”
Heart muscle cells and neurons in the brain have huge numbers of mitochondria that must be tightly monitored. If bad mitochondria are allowed to build up, not only do they stop making fuel, they begin consuming it and produce molecules that damage the cell. This damage eventually can lead to Parkinson’s or heart failure, depending on the organ affected. Most of the time, quality-control systems in a healthy cell make sure damaged or dysfunctional mitochondria are identified and removed.
Over the past 15 years, scientists have described much of this quality-control system. Both the beginning and end of the chain of events are well understood. And since 2006, scientists have been working to identify the mysterious middle section of the chain – the part that allows the internal environment of sick mitochondria to communicate to the rest of the cell that it needs to be destroyed.
“This was a big question,” Dorn says. “Scientists would draw the middle part of the chain as a black box. How do these self-destruct signals inside the mitochondria communicate with proteins far away in the surrounding cell that orchestrate the actual destruction?”
“To my knowledge, no one has connected an Mfn2 mutation to Parkinson’s disease,” Dorn says. “And until recently, I don’t think anybody would have looked. This isn’t what Mfn2 is supposed to do.”
Mitofusin 2 is known for its role in fusing mitochondria together, so they might exchange mitochondrial DNA in a primitive form of sexual reproduction.
“Mitofusins look like little Velcro loops,” Dorn says. “They help fuse together the outer membranes of mitochondria. Mitofusins 1 and 2 do pretty much the same thing in terms of mitochondrial fusion. What we have done is describe an entirely new function for Mfn2.”
The mitochondrial quality-control system begins with what Dorn calls a “dead man’s switch.”
“If the mitochondria are alive, they have to do work to keep the switch depressed to prevent their own self-destruction,” Dorn says.
Specifically, mitochondria work to import a molecule called PINK. Then they work to destroy it. When mitochondria get sick, they can’t destroy PINK and its levels begin to rise. Then comes the missing link that Dorn and his colleague Yun Chen, PhD, senior scientist, identified. Once PINK levels get high enough, they make a chemical change to Mfn2, which sits on the surface of mitochondria. This chemical change is called phosphorylation. Phosphorylated Mfn2 on the surface of the mitochondria can then bind with a molecule called Parkin that floats around in the surrounding cell.
Once Parkin binds to Mfn2 on sick mitochondria, Parkin labels the mitochondria for destruction. The labels then attract special compartments in the cell that “eat” and destroy the sick mitochondria. As long as all links in the quality-control system work properly, the cells’ damaged power plants are removed, clearing the way for healthy ones.
“But if you have a mutation in PINK, you get Parkinson’s disease,” Dorn says. “And if you have a mutation in Parkin, you get Parkinson’s disease. About 10 percent of Parkinson’s disease is attributed to these or other mutations that have been identified.”
According to Dorn, the discovery of Mfn2’s relationship to PINK and Parkin opens the doors to a new genetic form of Parkinson’s disease. And it may help improve diagnosis for both Parkinson’s disease and heart failure.
“I think researchers will look closely at inherited Parkinson’s cases that are not explained by known mutations,” Dorn says. “They will look for loss of function mutations in Mfn2, and I think they are likely to find some.”
Similarly, as a cardiologist, Dorn and his colleagues already have detected mutations in Mfn2 that appear to explain certain familial forms of heart failure, the gradual deterioration of heart muscle that impairs blood flow to the body. He speculates that looking for mutations in PINK and Parkin might be worthwhile in heart failure as well.
“In this case, the heart has informed us about Parkinson’s disease, but we may have also described a Parkinson’s disease analogy in the heart,” he says. “This entire process of mitochondrial quality control is a relatively small field for heart specialists, but interest is growing.”
Obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure (hypertension) are all related, but understanding the molecular pathways that underlie cause and effect is complicated.
A new University of Iowa study identifies a protein within certain brain cells as a communications hub for controlling blood pressure, and suggests that abnormal activation of this protein may be a mechanism that links cardiovascular disease and obesity to elevated blood pressure.
“Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide, and hypertension is a major cardiovascular risk factor,” says Kamal Rahmouni, UI associate professor of pharmacology and internal medicine, and senior study author. “Our study identifies the protein called mTORC1 in the hypothalamus as a key player in the control of blood pressure. Targeting mTORC1 pathways may, therefore, be a promising strategy for the management of cardiovascular risk factors.”
The hypothalamus is a small region of the brain that is responsible for maintaining normal function for numerous bodily processes, including blood pressure, body temperature, and glucose levels. Signaling of mTORC1 protein in the hypothalamus has previously been shown to affect food intake and body weight.
The new study, which was published April 2 in the journal Cell Metabolism, shows that the mTORC1 protein is activated by small molecules and hormones that are associated with obesity and cardiovascular disease, and this activation leads to dramatic increases in blood pressure.
Leucine is an amino acid that we get from food, which is known to activate mTORC1. The UI researchers showed that activating mTORC1 in rat brains with leucine increased activity in the nerves that connect the brain to the kidney, an important organ in blood pressure control. The increased nerve activity was accompanied by a rise in blood pressure. Conversely, blocking this mTORC1 activation significantly blunted leucine’s blood pressure-raising effect.
This finding may have direct clinical relevance as elevated levels of leucine have been correlated with an increased risk of high blood pressure in patients with cardiovascular disease.
“Our new study suggests a mechanism by which leucine in the bloodstream might increase blood pressure,” Rahmouni says.
Previous work has also suggested that mTORC1 is a signaling hub for leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells, which has been implicated in obesity-related hypertension.
Rahmouni and his colleagues showed that leptin activates mTORC1 in a specific part of the hypothalamus causing increased nerve activity and a rise in blood pressure. These effects are blocked by inhibiting activation of mTORC1.
“Our study shows that when this protein is either activated or inhibited in a very specific manner, it can cause dramatic changes in blood pressure,” Rahmouni says. “Given the importance of this protein for the control of blood pressure, any abnormality in its activity might explain the hypertension associated with certain conditions like obesity and cardiovascular disease.”
Rahmouni and his team hope that uncovering the details of the pathways linking mTORC1 activation and high blood pressure might lead to better treatments for high blood pressure in patients with cardiovascular disease and obesity.
Deep inside your brain, a legion of stem cells lies ready to turn into new brain and nerve cells whenever and wherever you need them most. While they wait, they keep themselves in a state of perpetual readiness – poised to become any type of nerve cell you might need as your cells age or get damaged.
Now, new research from scientists at the University of Michigan Medical School reveals a key way they do this: through a type of internal “spring cleaning” that both clears out garbage within the cells, and keeps them in their stem-cell state.
In a paper published online in Nature Neuroscience, the U-M team shows that a particular protein, called FIP200, governs this cleaning process in neural stem cells in mice. Without FIP200, these crucial stem cells suffer damage from their own waste products — and their ability to turn into other types of cells diminishes.
It is the first time that this cellular self-cleaning process, called autophagy, has been shown to be important to neural stem cells.
The findings may help explain why aging brains and nervous systems are more prone to disease or permanent damage, as a slowing rate of self-cleaning autophagy hampers the body’s ability to deploy stem cells to replace damaged or diseased cells. If the findings translate from mice to humans, the research could open up new avenues to prevention or treatment of neurological conditions.
In a related review article just published online in the journal Autophagy, the lead U-M scientist and colleagues from around the world discuss the growing evidence that autophagy is crucial to many types of tissue stem cells and embryonic stem cells as well as cancer stem cells.
As stem cell-based treatments continue to develop, the authors say, it will be increasingly important to understand the role of autophagy in preserving stem cells’ health and ability to become different types of cells.
“The process of generating new neurons from neural stem cells, and the importance of that process, is pretty well understood, but the mechanism at the molecular level has not been clear,” says Jun-Lin Guan, Ph.D., the senior author of the FIP200 paper and the organizing author of the autophagy and stem cells review article. “Here, we show that autophagy is crucial for maintenance of neural stem cells and differentiation, and show the mechanism by which it happens.”
Through autophagy, he says, neural stem cells can regulate levels of reactive oxygen species – sometimes known as free radicals – that can build up in the low-oxygen environment of the brain regions where neural stem cells reside. Abnormally higher levels of ROS can cause neural stem cells to start differentiating.
Guan is a professor in the Molecular Medicine & Genetics division of the U-M Department of Internal Medicine, and in the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology.
A long path to discovery
The new discovery, made after 15 years of research with funding from the National Institutes of Health, shows the importance of investment in lab science – and the role of serendipity in research.
Guan has been studying the role of FIP200 — whose full name is focal adhesion kinase family interacting protein of 200 kD – in cellular biology for more than a decade. Though he and his team knew it was important to cellular activity, they didn’t have a particular disease connection in mind. Together with colleagues in Japan, they did demonstrate its importance to autophagy – a process whose importance to disease research continues to grow as scientists learn more about it.
Several years ago, Guan’s team stumbled upon clues that FIP200 might be important in neural stem cells when studying an entirely different phenomenon. They were using FIP200-less mice as comparisons in a study, when an observant postdoctoral fellow noticed that the mice experienced rapid shrinkage of the brain regions where neural stem cells reside.
“That effect was more interesting than what we were actually intending to study,” says Guan, as it suggested that without FIP200, something was causing damage to the home of neural stem cells that normally replace nerve cells during injury or aging.
In 2010, they worked with other U-M scientists to show FIP200’s importance to another type of stem cell, those that generate blood cells. In that case, deleting the gene that encodes FIP200 leads to an increased proliferation and ultimate depletion of such cells, called hematopoietic stem cells.
But with neural stem cells, they report in the new paper, deleting the FIP200 gene led neural stem cells to die and ROS levels to rise. Only by giving the mice the antioxidant n-acetylcysteine could the scientists counteract the effects.
“It’s clear that autophagy is going to be important in various types of stem cells,” says Guan, pointing to the new paper in Autophagy that lays out what’s currently known about the process in hematopoietic, neural, cancer, cardiac and mesenchymal (bone and connective tissue) stem cells.
Guan’s own research is now exploring the downstream effects of defects in neural stem cell autophagy – for instance, how communication between neural stem cells and their niches suffers. The team is also looking at the role of autophagy in breast cancer stem cells, because of intriguing findings about the impact of FIP200 deletion on the activity of the p53 tumor suppressor gene, which is important in breast and other types of cancer. In addition, they will study the importance of p53 and p62, another key protein component for autophagy, to neural stem cell self-renewal and differentiation, in relation to FIP200.
Amyloids — clumps of misfolded proteins found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders — are the quintessential bad boys of neurobiology. They’re thought to muck up the seamless workings of the neurons responsible for memory and movement, and researchers around the world have devoted themselves to devising ways of blocking their production or accumulation in humans.
But now a pair of recent research studies from the Stanford University School of Medicine sets a solid course toward rehabilitating the reputation of the proteins that form these amyloid tangles, or plaques. In the process, they appear poised to turn the field of neurobiology on its head.
The first study, published in August, showed that an amyloid-forming protein called beta amyloid, which is strongly implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, could reverse the symptoms of a multiple-sclerosis-like neurodegenerative disease in laboratory mice.
The second study, published April 3 in Science Translational Medicine, extends the finding to show that small portions of several notorious amyloid-forming proteins (including well-known culprits like tau and prion proteins) can also quickly alleviate symptoms in mice with the condition — despite the fact that the fragments can and do form the long tendrils, or fibrils, previously thought harmful to nerve health.
“What we’re finding is that, at least under certain circumstances, these amyloid peptides actually help the brain,” said Lawrence Steinman, MD, professor of neurology and neurological sciences and of pediatrics. “This really turns the ‘amyloid-is-bad’ dogma upside down. It will require a shift in people’s fundamental beliefs about neurodegeneration and diseases like multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”
Steinman is a noted expert in multiple sclerosis whose research led to the development of natalizumab (marketed as Tysabri), a potent treatment for the disease.
Taken together, the studies begin to suggest the radical new idea that full-length, amyloid-forming proteins may in fact be produced by the body as a protective, rather than destructive, force. In particular, Steinman’s study shows that these proteins may function as molecular chaperones, escorting and removing from sites of injury specific molecules involved in inflammation and inappropriate immune responses.
Steinman, who is also the medical school’s George A. Zimmermann Professor, is the corresponding author of the research. Jonathan Rothbard, PhD, a senior research scientist in the Steinman laboratory, is the senior author; postdoctoral scholar Michael Kurnellas, PhD, is the lead author.
Although the specific findings of Steinman’s two studies are surprising, there have been inklings from previous research that amyloid-forming proteins may not be all bad. In particular, inhibiting, or knocking out, the expression of several of the proteins in the mouse models of multiple sclerosis — a technique that should block the course of the disease if these proteins are the cause — instead worsened the animals’ symptoms.
And there’s the fact that these so-called dangerous amyloid-forming molecules are surprisingly prevalent. “We know the body makes a lot of amyloid-forming proteins in response to injury,” said Steinman. “I’m doubtful that that’s done to produce more harm. For example, the prion protein is found in every cell in our bodies. What is it doing? It’s possible that any therapeutic maneuver to remove all of these proteins could interfere with their natural function.”
Understanding how amyloids form requires an understanding of the biology of proteins, which are essentially strings of smaller components called amino acids attached end to end. Once they’re made, these protein strings twist and fold into specific three-dimensional shapes that fit together like keys and locks to do the work of the cell.
A misfolded protein is likely to be unable to carry out its duties and must be disposed of by the body’s cellular waste-management system. Amyloid-forming proteins (of which there are around 20), however, don’t go quietly, if at all. Instead, they initiate a chain reaction with other misfolded proteins — forming long, insoluble strands called fibrils that mat together to form amyloid clumps. These clumps appear consistently in the brains of people with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis, but not in the brains of healthy people.
Although these clumps are thought to be detrimental to nerve cells, it’s not entirely clear how they cause harm. One possibility is the ability of the fibrils to form cylindrical pores that could disrupt the cellular membrane and interfere with the orderly flow of ions and molecules used by the cells to communicate and transmit nerve signals. Regardless, their very presence suggests a diagnosis of neurodegeneration to many clinicians, including — until recently — Steinman.
“We began this research because these molecules are present in the brains of people with multiple sclerosis,” said Steinman. “We expected to show that the presence of beta amyloid made the disease worse in laboratory animals. Instead, we saw a great deal of benefit.”
Intrigued by the results of their first study, the researchers next tested the effect of small, six-amino-acid portions of several amyloid-forming proteins, including beta amyloid, which appeared likely to share a three-dimensional structure. They found that nearly all of the tiny protein molecules, or hexamers, were also able to temporarily reverse the symptoms of multiple sclerosis in the mice (when the treatment was stopped, the mice developed signs of the condition within a few days).
The researchers noted, however, that the curative effect of the hexamers was linked to their ability to form fibrils similar, but not identical, to their longer parent molecules. For example, these simplified hexamer fibrils are more easily formed and broken apart than those composed of whole proteins. They are also thought not to be able to form the cylindrical pores that might damage cell membranes. Finally, the hexamer fibrils appear to inhibit the formation of fibrils from full-length proteins — perhaps by blocking, or failing to promote, the chain reaction that initiates fibril formation.
When Steinman and his colleagues mixed the fibril-forming hexamers with blood plasma from three people with multiple sclerosis, they found that the fibrils bound to and removed from solution many potentially damaging molecules involved in inflammation and the immune response.
“These hexamer fibrils appear to be working to remove dangerous chemicals from the vicinity of the injury,” said Steinman.
The researchers are eager to pursue the use of these small hexamers as therapies for neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis. Much research is still needed, but Steinman is hopeful.
“The lessons we learn from our study of amyloid-forming proteins in multiple sclerosis could be helpful for stroke and brain trauma, as well as for Alzheimer’s,” said Steinman. “We’re gaining insight into how current therapeutic approaches may be affecting the body, and beginning to understand the nuances necessary to design a successful treatment. Although it will take time, we’re determined to move promising results out of the laboratory and into the clinic as quickly as possible.”
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Clumps of proteins that accumulate in brain cells are a hallmark of neurological diseases such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Over the past several years, there has been much controversy over the structure of one of those proteins, known as alpha synuclein.
MIT computational scientists have now modeled the structure of that protein, most commonly associated with Parkinson’s, and found that it can take on either of two proposed states — floppy or rigid. The findings suggest that forcing the protein to switch to the rigid structure, which does not aggregate, could offer a new way to treat Parkinson’s, says Collin Stultz, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.
“If alpha synuclein can really adopt this ordered structure that does not aggregate, you could imagine a drug-design strategy that stabilizes these ordered structures to prevent them from aggregating,” says Stultz, who is the senior author of a paper describing the findings in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
For decades, scientists have believed that alpha synuclein, which forms clumps known as Lewy bodies in brain cells and other neurons, is inherently disordered and floppy. However, in 2011 Harvard University neurologist Dennis Selkoe and colleagues reported that after carefully extracting alpha synuclein from cells, they found it to have a very well-defined, folded structure.
That surprising finding set off a scientific controversy. Some tried and failed to replicate the finding, but scientists at Brandeis University, led by Thomas Pochapsky and Gregory Petsko, also found folded (or ordered) structures in the alpha synuclein protein.
Stultz and his group decided to jump into the fray, working with Pochapsky’s lab, and developed a computer-modeling approach to predict what kind of structures the protein might take. Working with the structural data obtained by the Brandeis researchers, Stultz created a model that calculates the probabilities of many different possible structures, to determine what set of structures would best explain the experimental data.
The calculations suggest that the protein can rapidly switch among many different conformations. At any given time, about 70 percent of individual proteins will be in one of the many possible disordered states, which exist as single molecules of the alpha synuclein protein. When three or four of the proteins join together, they can assume a mix of possible rigid structures, including helices and beta strands (protein chains that can link together to form sheets).
“On the one hand, the people who say it’s disordered are right, because a majority of the protein is disordered,” Stultz says. “And the people who would say that it’s ordered are not wrong; it’s just a very small fraction of the protein that is ordered.”
“This paper seems to bridge the gap” between the two camps, says Trevor Creamer, an associate professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry at the University of Kentucky who was not involved in this research. Also important is the model’s prediction of new structures for the protein that experimental biologists can now look for, Creamer adds.
The MIT researchers also found that when alpha synuclein adopts an ordered structure, similar to that described by Selkoe and co-workers, the portions of the protein that tend to aggregate with other molecules are buried deep within the structure, explaining why those ordered forms do not clump together.
Stultz is now working to figure out what controls the protein’s configuration. There is some evidence that other molecules in the cell can modify alpha synuclein, forcing it to assume one conformation or another.
“If this structure really does exist, we have a new way now of potentially designing drugs that will prevent aggregation of alpha synuclein,” he says.
Study on cell cultures gives insights into the mechanisms of
Bonn, Germany, March 27th, 2013. In diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s endogenous proteins accumulate in the brain, eventually leading to the death of nerve cells. These deposits, which consist of abnormally formed proteins, are supposed to migrate between interconnected areas of the brain, thereby contributing to the development of the illness. Now, a new laboratory study by scientists from Germany and the US shows that certain protein particles are indeed capable of multiplying and spreading from one cell to the next. The investigation was conducted by researchers of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) in Bonn and Munich who cooperated with scientists from the US and from other German institutions. The results are now published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA“ (PNAS).
Are particles consisting of deformed proteins capable of moving from one cell’s interior to the next, multiplying and spreading as in a chain reaction? The team of scientists headed by Ina Vorberg, who is a researcher at the DZNE site in Bonn and a professor at the University of Bonn, investigated this hypothesis. The scientists did so with the help of cell cultures, which allowed them to adapt experiments to specific questions.
The researchers used cultured brain cells that originated from mice. The genetic code of a model protein was transferred into these cells, enabling the scientists to control production of the protein.
A yeast particle
The blueprint of the molecule was extracted from yeast DNA. This protein does not exist in humans. Nevertheless, the scientists chose this particular protein because it had several properties that were relevant for the study: In its natural environment – the yeast cell – it is capable of forming replicating “aggregates” (i. e. large protein particles). The protein deforms during this process. Now, the question was, whether something similar would happen in mammalian cells.
“At first, our mouse cells produced the protein, but no particles formed,” Vorberg reports. “The situation changed when we exposed the cells to aggregates of the same protein. Suddenly, the proteins which had been in solution started building clumps.”
Once this reaction had been triggered the cells went on producing aggregates. The researchers noticed that these clumps spread into neighboring cells, where they initiated synthesis of further aggregates.
“We have experimentally shown that certain protein particles originating from the cytosol, i. e. from inside the cells, are able to spread between cells. This means that in mammalian cells there are mechanisms capable of triggering such a chain reaction. Accordingly, what we have shown in our model system may be applicable to neurodegenerative diseases,” Vorberg comments.
Propagation of aggregates was most effective between adjacent cells. “At least in our model system, protein particles are not released efficiently into the medium and assimilated by neighboring cells. The most effective transmission happens by direct cell-to-cell contact. It is possible that cells form protrusions and that aggregates move from one cell to the next through this connection”, says the neuroscientist. What is happening here will be the focus of further research.
Basis for potential therapies
“It is important to know how protein particles disseminate”, Vorberg emphasizes. “Disease-related protein particles might propagate in a similar way to the model protein we investigated.”
Unraveling the mechanism for transmission between cells could lead to new methods for treatment. “If we find a way to prevent the spreading of disease-related protein particles, we might be able to interfere with the progression of the diseases,” Vorberg says.
One molecule makes nerve cells grow longer. Another one makes them grow branches. These new experimental manipulations have taken researchers a step closer to understanding how nerve cells are repaired at their farthest reaches after injury. The research was recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
“If you injure a peripheral nerve, it will spontaneously regenerate, but it goes very slowly. We’re trying to speed that up,” said Dr. Jeffery Twiss, a professor and head of the biology department at Drexel University in the College of Arts and Sciences, who was senior author of the paper.
But, Twiss said, scientists still have a lot to learn about how nerve cells repair themselves. He and his colleagues are especially interested in how nerve cells are repaired in their longest-reaching sections, their axons. Axons can be up to a meter long in adult human nerve cells, extending away from the cell body toward neighboring nerve cells, with which they exchange signals. Restoring length to damaged axons is essential to restoring nerve function, but coordinating these repairs at a great distance from the cell’s nucleus involves a mix of complex processes within each cell. To gain insight into these processes, they have focused research, including the present study, on repair proteins that are created locally near an injury site in a nerve’s axon.
Scientists have discovered a molecular process in the brain triggered by cocaine use that could provide a target for treatments to prevent or reverse addiction to the drug.
Reporting in the Journal of Neuroscience, Michigan State University (MSU) neuroscientist A.J. Robison and colleagues say cocaine alters the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure center that responds to stimuli such as food, sex and drugs.
“Understanding what happens molecularly to this brain region during long-term exposure to drugs might give us insight into how addiction occurs,” said Robison, assistant professor in the Department of Physiology and in the Neuroscience Program.
The researchers found that cocaine causes cells in the nucleus accumbens to boost production of two proteins, one associated with addiction and the other related to learning. The proteins have a reciprocal relationship – they increase each other’s production and stability in the cells – so the result is a snowball effect that Robison calls a feed-forward loop.
Robison and colleagues demonstrated that loop’s essential role in cocaine responses by manipulating the process in rodents. They found that raising production of the protein linked to addiction made animals behave as if they were exposed to cocaine even when they weren’t. They also were able to break the loop, disrupting rodents’ response to cocaine by preventing the function of the learning protein.
“At every level that we study, interrupting this loop disrupts the process that seems to occur with long-term exposure to drugs,” said Robison, who conducted the study as a postdoctoral fellow at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City before joining the faculty at MSU.
Robison said the study was particularly compelling because it found signs of the same feed-forward loop in the brains of people who died while addicted to cocaine.
“The increased production of these proteins that we found in the animals exposed to drugs was exactly paralleled in a population of human cocaine addicts,” he said. “That makes us believe that the further experiments and manipulations we did in the animals are directly relevant to humans.”
Robison said the growing understanding of addiction at the molecular level could help pave the way for new treatments for addicts.
“This sort of molecular pathway could be interrupted using genetic medicine, which is what we did with the mice,” he said. “Many researchers think that is the future of medicine.”