Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), with collaborators at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, have discovered how the most common genetic mutations in familial Parkinson's disease damage brain cells. The mutations block an intracellular system that normally prevents a protein called alpha-synuclein from reaching toxic levels in dopamine-producing neurons. The findings suggest that interventions aimed at enhancing this digestive system, or preventing its disruption, may prove valuable in the prevention or treatment of Parkinson's. The study was published March 3 in the online edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience.
Parkinson's disease is characterized by the formation of Lewy bodies (which are largely composed of alpha-synuclein) in dopamine neurons. In 1997, scientists discovered that a mutation in alpha-synuclein can lead to Lewy body formation. "But alpha-synuclein mutations occur in only a tiny percentage of Parkinson's patients," said co-lead author David L. Sulzer, PhD, professor of neurology, pharmacology, and psychiatry at CUMC. "This meant that there must be something else that interfered with alpha-synuclein in people with Parkinson's."
Dr. Sulzer and his colleagues suspected that a gene called leucine-rich repeat kinase-2 (LRRK2) might be involved. LRRK2 mutations are the most common mutations to have been linked to Parkinson's. The current study aimed to determine how these mutations might lead to the accumulation of alpha-synuclein.
"We found that abnormal forms of LRRK2 protein disrupt a critical protein-degradation process in cells called chaperone-mediated autophagy," said Dr. Sulzer. "One of the proteins affected by this disruption is alpha-synuclein. As this protein starts to accumulate, it becomes toxic to neurons." Delving deeper, the researchers found that LRRK2 mutations interfere with LAMP-2A, a lysosome membrane receptor that plays a key role in lysosome function.
(Chaperone-mediated autophagy, or CMA, is responsible for transporting old or damaged proteins from the cell body to the lysosomes, where they are digested into amino acids and then recycled. In 2004, Dr. Sulzer and the current paper's other co-lead author, Ana Maria Cuervo, MD, PhD, professor of developmental & molecular biology, of anatomy & structural biology, and of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, showed that alpha-synuclein is degraded by the CMA pathway.)