The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research and Shake It Up Australia Foundation are co-funding a 12-month research project by Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research to look at the role of long non-coding RNAs in Parkinson's disease.
Long non-coding RNAs are complex molecules, produced from a DNA blueprint, that appear to play regulatory roles in the body. Unlike conventional genes, they do not make proteins (which carry out specific functions in cells). Instead, they seem to act by dictating how and when other genes are expressed and when some already produced proteins are released into the cell.
Long non-coding RNAs have been shown to influence the development of certain diseases, and recent evidence suggests they may control human development, and be particularly important in brain plasticity and learning.
Garvan's Professor John Mattick and Associate Professor Antony Cooper will be combining their respective expertise in long non-coding RNAs and Parkinson's disease to focus on small regions of the human genome that influence susceptibility to Parkinson's disease.
Recent genome-wide association studies comparing the DNA of thousands of healthy people with the DNA of Parkinson's patients, showed regions that differed slightly.
When Cooper took a close look at one of these differing regions, he found several long non-coding RNAs that correlated strongly with disease. The current grant will allow several such regions to be examined in great detail.
Mattick and Cooper will extract RNA from the post-mortem brains of Parkinson's patients and healthy 'controls' and use a new technique called 'RNA CaptureSeq' (developed by the Mattick lab) to study regions of interest at a depth never before imagined, far less undertaken.
Commenting on the extraordinary complexity of the genome, Professor Mattick said "the deeper we drill down, the more surprises we find, and in this case we hope to uncover correlations between long non-coding RNAs and Parkinson's disease."
"Ultimately, we need much better insight into the mechanisms at work in order to find biomarkers for the disease and create better therapies for the future."
Associate Professor Antony Cooper views the process as a voyage of discovery. "It will be very informative to see what is going on in human brains at this level of magnification - in healthy people as well as those who are ill," he said.
"For many years, we have been able to see that genetics plays a role in Parkinson's disease, but in 80-90% of cases the genetic connection has been very complex - this project has the real potential to provide some clarity on the genetic contribution to this disease."
"It is very hard to study human brains, as you obviously can't dissect a brain while someone is alive. I am hopeful that this project will give us a new kind of window into the brain, a window opened by new technologies and the insights they allow."
The hope of all parties is that this project could ultimately lead to breakthroughs for screening and early diagnosis of Parkinson's disease as well as new therapies for patients.