I started writing this blog as a way of learning more about Parkinson’s. I get various email subscriptions which are constantly reporting new breakthroughs in PD….or at least they sound like breakthroughs. Understanding the research is very thick going for me, so yes, I wish I’d paid more attention in my one and only biology course. I vaguely recall dissecting frogs, a lot of stuff about Linnean classification of plants and animals, and a little bit about the mechanics of a cell. There must have been something about chromosomes and genes too, but I sure don’t remember that.
What I’m struggling to understand these days are genetics and cells. This is where the action is for PD research. I am grateful to good science journalists for translating research. On the Michael J. Fox Foundation blog, their Associate Director for Research Communications, Maggie McGuire has a tidy posting concisely listing the genes that have some relationship to PD. A small percentage of PD cases are directly genetic, related a mutation in the LRRK2 gene. But other genetic mutations may raise the risk of PD, hence the scientific interest. In earlier postings, I wrote in more detail about the genetic tie-in to young-onset PD and the alpha-synuclein toxic proteins (a sign of PD) which may be due to genetic mutations.
So, I wish I comprehended the relationship between genes and proteins, and also genetic mutations….are these common? Are they just a variation, or does “mutation” always mean “bad news”? My excuse for being rusty on genetics is that it has totally transformed in the last decade, since completion of the mapping of the human genome in 2001. The LRRK2 gene was only discovered ten years ago.
And I struggle to understand the basic vocabulary, not to mention the mechanics, of cells. How do cells, genes, proteins differ? And work together? And what is dopamine? A protein? A component of a cell? At the World Parkinson’s Congress I went to last year, every other speaker talked about (potential) stem cell therapies. Fix the cells not producing dopamine and voila! PD cured! Wish it were that easy.
As a first step on understanding stem cell therapies, how do you get stem cells? It used to be that these proto-cells that can become any type of cells could only be found in fetuses. The shortages and ethical challenges of fetal stem cells have been widely reported. These challenges have been sidestepped by Shinya Yamanaka, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery that mature cells could be reprogrammed to become stem cells. (The $10 term is “pluripotent”, that is, immature cells that are able to develop into all types of cells in the body. )
In future postings, I’ll explore the potential for stem cell therapies for PD.