by Sudeepthi Ravipati (’24) | April 8, 2022
Parkinson’s disease is a devastating illness with no known cause. While people experience this neuro-degenerative disorder in a variety of ways, it generally impacts an individual’s movement by attacking nerve cells in the brain and causing dopamine levels to fall. For years, scientists have searched tirelessly for a cure or method of prevention, but they have found no promising results until now.
Researchers have recently identified a gene that could prevent this disease, which currently affects one in every five hundred individuals. A team from the University of Geneva used fruit flies as a model for investigating the breakdown of dopaminergic neurons. These particular neurons control brain functions such as movement, associative learning, cognition, and motivation. As these cells degenerate, the brain’s substantia nigra, responsible for regulating muscle movement, reduces dopamine transmission.
Genetics and evolution professor Emi Nagoshi and her team analyzed the Fer2 gene, which codes proteins and controls the behavior of other genes capable of causing Parkinson’s disease if mutated. Observing the flies, Nagoshi’s team noticed that a mutation in the Fer2 gene led to a delay in movement, a known symptom of Parkinson’s. Additionally, mutating the gene caused a dysfunction of the cells’ mitochondria, organelles that typically generate energy for the cell.
“We have also identified the genes regulated by Fer2 and these are mainly involved in mitochondrial functions. This key protein therefore seems to play a crucial role against the degeneration of dopaminergic neurons in flies by controlling not only the structure of mitochondria but also their functions,” explains Federico Miozzo, a co-author of the study. While a lack of Fer2 causes symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, overproduction of the gene had no negative effects on the flies.
To expand the scope of their research, the team also decided to study such variations in mammals, specifically gene mutations in mice. The same issues observed in flies were also found in elderly mice.
“We are currently testing the protective role of the Fer2 homolog in mice, and results similar to those observed in flies would allow us to consider a new therapeutic target for Parkinson’s disease patients,” concludes Emi Nagoshi. While there is certainly no cure for Parkinson’s yet, scientists are blazing a trail for potential prevention of the disease.