Public Release:  Parkinson's disease protein gums up garbage disposal system in cells

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

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IMAGE: This shows lewy bodies. Brown spots are immunostaining using an antibody specifically recognizing an abnormal form of alpha-synuclein. view more

Credit: Kelvin C. Luk, Ph.D., Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

PHILADELPHIA - Clumps of α-synuclein protein in nerve cells are hallmarks of many degenerative brain diseases, most notably Parkinson's disease.

"No one has been able to determine if Lewy bodies and Lewy neurites, hallmark pathologies in Parkinson's disease can be degraded," says Virginia Lee, PhD, director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research, at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania.

"With the new neuron model system of Parkinson's disease pathologies our lab has developed recently, we demonstrated that these aberrant clumps in cells resist degradation as well as impair the function of the macroautophagy system, one of the major garbage disposal systems within the cell."

Macroautophagy, literally self eating, is the degradation of unnecessary or dysfunctional cellular bits and pieces by a compartment in the cell called the lysosome.

Lee, also a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and colleagues published their results in the early online edition of the Journal of Biological Chemistry this week.

Alpha-synuclein (α-syn ) diseases all have clumps of the protein and include Parkinson's disease (PD), and array of related disorders: PD with dementia , dementia with Lewy bodies, and multiple system atrophy. In most of these, α-syn forms insoluble aggregates of stringy fibrils that accumulate in the cell body and extensions of neurons.

These unwanted α-syn clumps are modified by abnormal attachments of many phosphate chemical groups as well as by the protein ubiquitin, a molecular tag for degradation. They are widely distributed in the central nervous system, where they are associated with neuron loss.

Using cell models in which intracellular α-syn clumps accumulate after taking up synthetic α-syn fibrils, the team showed that α-syn inclusions cannot be degraded, even though they are located near the lysosome and the proteasome, another type of garbage disposal in the cell.

The α-syn aggregates persist even after soluble α-syn levels within the cell are substantially reduced, suggesting that once formed, the α-syn inclusions are resistant to being cleared. What's more, they found that α-syn aggregates impair the overall autophagy degradative process by delaying the maturation of autophagy machines known as autophagosomes, which may contribute to the increased cell death seen in clump-filled nerve cells. Understanding the impact of α-syn aggregates on autophagy may help elucidate therapies for α-syn-related neurodegeneration.

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Co-authors are Selcuk A. Tanik, Christine E. Schultheiss, Laura A. Volpicelli-Daley, and Kurt R. Brunden, all from Penn.

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Neurological Diseases (NS053488), the JPB Foundation, and the Jeff and Anne Keefer Fund.

Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $4.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 16 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $398 million awarded in the 2012 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania -- recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report; Penn Presbyterian Medical Center; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Penn Medicine also includes additional patient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2012, Penn Medicine provided $827 million to benefit our community.

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