Parkinson’s Research: For sufferers and their families

June 1, 2022

Professor Sue's work is industry leading. Her objective is to bring the team’s work to a clinical trial within five years, having the potential to materially help Parkinson’s sufferers and their families.

Characterised by tremors, slowness of movement, rigidity and postural instability, Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease in Australia, affecting approximately 110,000 people. Parkinson’s Disease also has a profound effect on families. Symptoms tend to get worse over time and therefore care givers need to adapt as the disease progresses. A lack of mobility in the later stages of the disease mean falls become a high level risk. The family needs to adapt in order to cope with these heightened care requirements.

Mitochondrial health may be the key to treating Parkinson’s disease

The University of Sydney’s BMC is a multidisciplinary network of researchers who collaborate in pursuit of a common goal: the development of better treatments for conditions of the brain and mind. One of the University of Sydney’s largest multidisciplinary initiatives, the BMC runs 23 clinics, seven labs and eight teams of more than 400 researchers. The researchers and their teams translate research into real-world outcomes for disorders throughout life, from child neurodevelopment, youth mental health and brain ageing.

Neurodegeneration in Parkinson’s Disease is due to loss of mitochondrial function and slow accumulation of abnormal proteins in neurons. Mitochondria are specialised structures found in large numbers in most cells. They are responsible for energy production. To avoid the disease progressing from continuing cell loss, it is crucial to maintain good quality mitochondria for the cell to function properly and survive. Central to the clearance of damaged mitochondria, repopulation with healthy mitochondria and subsequent maintenance of good levels of energy production in cells is the process called ‘mitophagy’.

Mitophagy is a protective process whereby damaged mitochondria are removed from the cell to maintain normal cellular function. Growing evidence suggests that impaired mitophagy plays a key role in the neurodegenerative process of Parkinson’s.

Genetic studies of Parkinson’s disease have shown that the gene PINK1 and other proteins work together to control mitophagy and are deficient in people with Parkinson’s. The mutations in PINK1 and the proteins therefore disrupt mitochondrial function. An alternative mechanism for people with Parkinson’s needs to be found. The BMC has recently discovered another protein, called Nix that can also mediate mitophagy, independent of PINK1.

It is Professor Carolyn Sue and her team’s aim to establish whether Nix control of mitophagy can maintain good mitochondrial function and therefore, stop Parkinson’s disease from progressing. Their research will lay the foundation for the development of therapies against Parkinson’s disease with the goal of slowing disease progression, extending the lifespan and restoring quality of life to those living with this disease and their families.

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