Scientists hoping to deliver effective treatments for strokes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions have taken a small but significant step. A team of researchers at the John Hopkins School of Medicine have identified the protein which must be present for cell death in stroke victims. The latest research in this rapidly developing field raises the possibility of being able to develop treatments which block this protein and prevent cell death from occurring.
The link between strokes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s is that although these conditions are quite distinct from each other, they all involve a particular form of cell death, which the researchers named “parthanatos” back in 2009, after Thanos, the winged youth who represented death in Greek mythology.
The latest report, published in the 7th October issue of Science journal, develops earlier work by Ted Dawson, Director of the Institute for Cell Engineering at John Hopkins, Valina Dawson, and others, which had already identified the chain of events leading to cell death during parthanatos. Up till now, although the team had identified that cell death in parthanatos was triggered by mitochondrial apoptosis-inducing factor (AIF) moving to the cell nucleus, they knew that AIF did not itself carve up the DNA in the cell nucleus, causing cell death to occur.
The latest research, by Yingfei Wang, assistant professor at the University of Texas South West Medical Center, and the team at John Hopkins has found the missing link in the chain. They have identified that the protein known as macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF) is needed to carve up the DNA in mice during a stroke. Without the presence of this protein, cell death will not occur. Although it has not yet been clearly proved that MIF protein is involved in other conditions where cells die by parthanatos, this is a strong possibility and further research will explore this link.
Explaining parthanatos, Dr Dawson has been quoted as saying “I can’t overemphasize what an important form of cell death it is; it plays a role in almost all forms of cellular injury”.
The next step for Dr Dawson and his team and other researchers in this field is to carry out further research into ways in which MIF can be blocked during the cell death process. There have already been encouraging results involving laboratory-grown cells.
The implications of these developments could be highly significant. As well as being the cause of cell death in strokes, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, parthanatos is also involved in conditions as wide-ranging as heart attacks and diabetes. It could be the first step towards finding ways of treating any of these life-debilitating problems.