British researchers have raised the tantalizing prospect of treating a range of brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, all with the same drug.
In a study, published in Nature, researchers prevented brain cells dying in mice with prion disease.
It is hoped the same method for preventing brain cell death could apply in other diseases.
The findings are at an early stage, but have been heralded as “fascinating”.
Many neuro-degenerative diseases result in the build-up of proteins which are not put together correctly – known as misfolded proteins. This happens in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s as well as in prion diseases, such as the human form of mad cow disease.
Researchers at the University of Leicester uncovered how the build-up of proteins in mice with prion disease resulted in brain cells dying.
They showed that as misfolded protein levels rise in the brain, cells respond by trying to shut down the production of all new proteins.
Researchers at the University of Leicester uncovered how the build-up of proteins in mice with prion disease resulted in brain cells dying
It is the same trick cells use when infected with a virus. Stopping production of proteins stops the virus spreading. However, shutting down the factory for a long period of time ends up killing the brain cells as they do not produce the proteins they actually need to function.
The team at the Medical Research Council laboratory in Leicester then tried to manipulate the switch which turned the protein factory off. When they prevented cells from shutting down, they prevented the brain dying. The mice then lived significantly longer.
Each neuro-degenerative disease results in a unique set of misfolded proteins being produced, which are then thought to lead to brain cells dying.
Prof. Giovanna Mallucci said: “The novelty here is we’re just targeting the protein shut-down, we’re ignoring the prion protein and that’s what makes it potentially relevant across the board.”
The idea, which has not yet been tested, is that if preventing the shut down protects the brain in prion disease – it might work in all diseases that have misfolded proteins.
Prof. Givanna Mallucci added: “What it gives you is an appealing concept that one pathway and therefore one treatment could have benefits across a range of disorders.
“But the idea is in its early stages. We would really need to confirm this concept in other diseases.”
The study has been broadly welcomed by other scientists although many point out that the research is in its infancy.
Experts found that men can inherit heart disease from their father after they have tracked the condition to the Y chromosome that dads pass to sons.
By studying the DNA of over 3,000 men, scientists found a particular version of the sex chromosome increases the risk of coronary artery disease by 50%.
The risk it confers is in addition to other heart risk factors like cholesterol, The Lancet reports.
Experts already know that men develop heart disease a decade earlier than women, on average. By the age of 40, the lifetime risk of heart disease is one in two for men and one in three for women.
Lifestyle factors like smoking and blood pressure are important contributors. This latest work suggests the male Y chromosome can also play a role in coronary artery disease.
Dr. Maciej Tomaszewski, from the University of Leicester in UK, and colleagues studied 3,233 biologically unrelated British men who were already enrolled in other medical studies investigating heart disease risk.
When they carried out genetic tests on the men they found that 90% possessed one of two common versions of Y chromosome – named haplogroup I and haplogroup R1b1b2.
And the risk of coronary artery disease among the men carrying the haplogroup I version was 50% higher than in other men.
The scientists say they now need to pinpoint precisely which genes on the Y chromosome are responsible.
But they believe they already know how they exert their effect – by upsetting a man’s immune system.
Dr. Maciej Tomaszewski, a clinical senior lecturer at the University’s Department of Cardiovascular Sciences, said: “We are very excited about these findings as they put the Y chromosome on the map of genetic susceptibility to coronary artery disease.
“Doctors usually associated the Y chromosome with maleness and fertility but this shows it is also implicated in heart disease.”
Experts found that men can inherit heart disease from their father after they have tracked the condition to the Y chromosome that dads pass to sons
He said, ultimately, the discovery could lead to new ways to treat and prevent heart disease in men, as well as a genetic test to spot those at greatest risk.
In the meantime, Dr. Maciej Tomaszewski said men should focus on risk factors that they already have the power to modify themselves, such as getting enough exercise and eating a healthy diet to keep their blood pressure and cholesterol down.
Dr. Hélène Wilson of the British Heart Foundation, which part-funded the work, said: “Coronary heart disease is the cause of heart attacks, which claim the lives of around 50,000 UK men every year.
“Lifestyle choices such as poor diet and smoking are major causes, but inherited factors carried in DNA are also part of the picture. The next step is to identify specifically which genes are responsible and how they might increase heart attack risk.”