UNC discoveries advance Parkinson’s, cancer research

Jul. 17, 2014 @ 06:50 PM

UNC School of Medicine researchers hope that new discoveries about a protein similar to one involved in the cause of Parkinson’s disease will lead to a better understanding of the neurodegenerative disease, as well as of cancer.

The researchers discovered that a protein called PARC/CUL9 is used by nervous system cells — which are called neurons — to block a trigger of the pathway that leads to cell death. Long-term survival of neurons keeps the brain functioning properly as people age.

In addition, the researchers also found that brain cancer cells use that same protein to prevent cell death, contributing to the spread of the disease.

The findings were published in the journal “Science Signaling.” According to a news release from the UNC School of Medicine, the results identified a previously unknown mechanism of survival for neurons and brain cancer cells.

Furthermore, Mohanish Deshmukh, a professor of cell biology and physiology and senior author of the paper, said in a statement that the protein PARC is very similar to Parkin, a protein mutated in people with Parkinson’s disease.

Deshmukh said they think the two proteins work together to protect neurons. If that is true, then they can investigate how the proteins work together in order to create better treatments for Parkinson’s. A neurodegenerative disease, Parkinson’s is characterized by muscle tremors and movement difficulties.

Vivian Gama, a postdoctoral fellow in Deshmukh’s lab, led the experiments in cell cultures and animal models, according to the release. She used external stimuli to promote the damage of mitochondria — the energy sources for cells.

In most cell types, when mitochondria are damaged, they release a protein called cytochrome c, which triggers series of steps that end in cell death. But with neurons, she found that PARC blocked that process.

The work could lead to another way to study Parkinson’s disease. Other researchers have created mouse models that lack the Parkin gene, but Gama said that those models don’t have many of the disease symptoms that humans have.

They also plan to investigate the protein as a target for cancer treatment.

The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, the American Brain Tumor Association, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.