Mapping cells for better Parkinson's research

Parkinson's disease is a common disorder with no cure available yet. An EU-funded project has produced a genetic and chemical map of the neurons affected by the disease, to support new research into diagnosis and treatments.

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Countries
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  Algeria
  Argentina
  Australia
  Austria
  Bangladesh
  Belarus
  Belgium
  Benin
  Bolivia
  Bosnia and Herzegovina
  Brazil
  Bulgaria
  Burkina Faso
  Cambodia
  Cameroon
  Canada
  Cape Verde
  Chile
  China
  Colombia
  Costa Rica
  Croatia
  Cyprus
  Czechia
  Denmark
  Ecuador
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  Ethiopia
  Faroe Islands
  Finland
  France
  French Polynesia
  Georgia


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Published: 9 June 2015  
Related theme(s) and subtheme(s)
Health & life sciencesHealth & ageing  |  Medical research  |  Neuroscience
Innovation
International cooperation
Countries involved in the project described in the article
France  |  Germany  |  Italy  |  Japan  |  Sweden  |  United Kingdom
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Mapping cells for better Parkinson's research

Photo of an older man looking at sea

© Marco Antonio Fdez. - fotolia.com

Caused by the death of neurons in the brain that make dopamine, a neurotransmitter necessary for the control of muscle movement, Parkinson’s disease makes muscles increasingly stiff and causes shaking.

Researchers do not know why dopamine-producing neurons are vulnerable . However, it particularly affects older people The disease is expected to place an increasing burden on health-care systems as the EU’s population ages.

The EU-funded DOPAMINET project has taken an important step towards helping researchers understand how the disease takes hold by mapping how dopamine-producing neurons – dopaminergic neurons – function.

The research team discovered which genes make a cell into a dopaminergic neuron, the mechanism that switches genes in these cells on or off, and how the neurons respond to different types of chemical signal to produce dopamine.

“This research will make it easier for researchers to identify new molecules that could be made into drugs to diagnose and treat the disease,” says project coordinator Stefano Gustincich of Italy’s Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati (International School for Advanced Studies).

Although a cure for Parkinson’s disease is still far away, he says, the project’s results should make it easier for researchers to work towards treatments that give a better quality of life of sufferers and cut the high healthcare costs associated with the disease.

State of the art studies

DOPAMINET was able to identify the new genetic information much more quickly than traditional research by taking advantage of automated screening and computer modelling tools. By examining genetic material from mice, zebrafish and sea squirts using very fast automatic analysis, the team found the genes that the different species had in common in their dopaminergic neuron cells.

Using their custom-built technique for analysing small amounts of genetic material – microCAGE analysis – and further automated screening, they then identified how these genes are activated, which ultimately leads to the production of dopamine. At the same time, they used computer-based mapping to model the network of chemical reactions that take place when dopaminergic neurons make dopamine.

Once all this information was in place, the team had a model for dopaminergic neurons that could be valid for different species, including humans. They tested their models for accuracy and used them to look for clues to possible lines of research for Parkinson’s disease treatments.

Separate work used the project’s data to convert skin cells into stable dopaminergic cells, confirming that its results are accurate. As part of their research, the DOPAMINET team also discovered a new class of DNA that helps activated genes produce the proteins that neurons need to function.

Sharing the data

The fundamental research and data from the project is publicly available, says Gustincich, while the project’s partners are applying for new funding to develop their research further.

To ensure that their data helps Parkinson’s disease research move forward, the project shared its discoveries as widely as possible, holding seminars with other scientists, pharmaceutical companies and, in particular, Parkinson’s disease associations.

For the new generation of Parkinson’s researchers, the project held a summer school in July 2012 to train them on the latest relevant expertise from different fields such as biology and computer modelling.

Gustincich says: “We are basic researchers – when we find out that what we do has such a positive effect on others, it is very motivating. For patients, these seminars help them know that they are not alone with the disease – they have thousands of people helping them.”

After the project ended in July 2012, a spin-off company was created to provide researchers and pharmaceutical companies with molecules that deliver this new class of protein-producing DNA to cells. This spin-off aims to help researchers find cures for some genetic diseases and to further finance further work into Parkinson’s disease.

Project details

  • Project acronym: DOPAMINET
  • Participants: Italy (Coordinator), Japan, Germany, France, UK, Sweden
  • Project reference: 223744
  • Total cost: € 3 831 030
  • EU contribution: € 2 967 180
  • Duration: February 2009 - July 2012

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