University of Missouri researchers might have found a way to lessen the severity of Parkinson’s disease.

Department of Biochemistry Professor Mark Hannink

Department of Biochemistry Professor Mark Hannink

Researchers have discovered a molecule that could be key to developing drugs that will keep brain cells healthy in individuals with Parkinson’s.

Mitochondria generate the energy needed to keep brain cells alive.  When mitochondria become damaged and are no longer capable of making energy, they are sent to a part of the cell called a lysosome to be repaired.  For those suffering from Parkinson’s disease, mitochondria fail to move to lysosomes, causing buildups of damaged mitochondria that kill brain cells.

Department of Biochemistry professor Mark Hannink says the goal is to prevent the cells from dying.

“We think we know what causes the cells to die and that’s failure to recycle the mitochondria,” said Hannink.  “So, what we think we’ve found is an alternative way to promote the getting rid of damaged mitochondria.”

The alternative pathway for mitochondrial recycling uses a protein called phosphoglycerate mutase family member 5 (PGAM5).  Hannink’s study found a peptide which acts as a “switch” to cause the protein to generate an alternate pathway.  By regulating the protein with the peptide he discovered, it could be possible to restore mitochondrial recycling in neurons of patients with Parkinson’s.

Hannink says most of the published work has been test tube based.

“That’s really the foundation of drug development.  Drugs are small molecules, but are designed then to interact in very specific ways with particular regions on proteins and change their function,” said Hannink.

Hannink says after they characterize how the molecule behaves against purified protein and against mitochondria in cultured cells, they will begin testing on mice.

“There’s a couple of researchers in the school of medicine who have mouse models of Parkinson’s disease.  We’ll be collaborating with them to do those tests,” said Hannink.

With the hope of developing new treatments for Parkinson’s, University of Missouri officials may request authority from the federal government to conduct human clinical trials if these additional studies are proven to be successful.