NCSU study yields clue to Parkinson's

Staff WriterJune 15, 2011 

— A study by researchers at N.C. State University could pave the way for new treatments for Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder whose patients suffer from tremors and loss of muscle function.

The work, published Tuesday in Nature Scientific Reports, may one day allow researchers to develop targeted drugs to fight the disease.

The study was led by doctoral candidate Frisco Rose. He worked closely with Dr. Miroslav Hodak, a research associate in physics, and Dr. Jerzy Bernholc, director of NCSU's Center for High Performance Simulation. Using advanced computational tools, the researchers unlocked the details of a key process in the early stages of Parkinson's disease.

The team focused on a certain protein associated with the disease and other degenerative illnesses. In its usual form, this protein is long and straight, like a spaghetti noodle.

Sometimes, though, the protein can get tangled and stick to itself. When this happens, other protein strands start sticking, forming clumps, as in a big pot of stuck-together spaghetti. These protein clumps, called Lewy bodies, are almost always found in the brains of patients with Parkinson's disease.

Scientists already had a few ideas about what causes the proteins to tangle, but they didn't know how it happened or where it started. Experiments couldn't easily provide details, and computer simulations weren't fast enough to run through all the possibilities. Proteins are very complex, so it would simply take too long.

The team at N.C. State developed a way to speed up the computer simulation. They focused closely on the parts of the protein that other researchers suspected were involved, but still simulated the rest of the protein in less detail.

Their simulation lets them track the protein step-by-step as it tangles, something researchers had never achieved before.

"The coolest thing for me is just to be able to see what's happening," Rose said. Now, "we can look at it and say, 'Right here, this is where something begins.'"

Knowing how something begins is crucial to figuring out how to stop it. Now that scientists understand the way these proteins clump together, drug research can focus on developing treatments to prevent or even reverse the process once it starts.

helen.chappell@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8983

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