The tiny bubbles that may spread Parkinson's disease

Francesca Cicchetti, Professor, Laval University
Funded by Quebec Research Fund on Parkinson
Pilot Project Grant: $45,000

Scientific title: Microvesicles: biomarkers and vehicles for alpha-synuclein propagation

Research into the causes of Parkinson's disease has increasingly begun to focus on damaged forms of a protein called alpha-synuclein that can form clumps in dopamine-producing brain cells and kill those cells, which are a critical part of motor control.

At Laval University, neuro-biologist Francesca Cicchetti is investigating the way damaged alpha-synuclein travels from cell to cell, spreading Parkinson's disease. Her investigations are centred around tiny little bubbles, called microvesicles, that can extract themselves from cells. Many researchers already believe that Parkinson's begins long before people start to experience problems with stiffness, tremors or balance – and those problems may originate outside the brain.

Microvesicles can travel long distances and may be carrying the toxic alpha-synuclein protein and spreading it to dopamine-producing brain cells. Cicchetti and her colleagues will examine the differences in microvesicles in the blood of people with Parkinson's disease, compared to the microvesicles in samples from people without Parkinson's. If they discover differences, such as larger numbers of microvesicles, that information would be a biomarker that could form the basis of an early diagnostic test for the disease. Discovering that microvesicles are responsible for spreading alpha-synuclein would also give researchers who develop drugs a new target for a medication or therapy that could stop the spread of the disease.

“This is a new avenue that has not really been explored ­- to think that tiny entities originating from blood cells have the capacity to carry these larger proteins and contribute to the spread of the disease,” says Cicchetti.

Cicchetti, who is also involved in research into Huntington's disease, is encouraged by the amount of collaborative research occurring in various fields. That collaboration is sparking new ideas and new approaches to finding causes, diagnostic tests and potential treatment targets. In the 12 years that she has been working on these diseases, Cicchetti has seen major progress in researchers' growing understanding of the basic molecular mechanisms that result in these illnesses.

“Grouping various disciplines and encouraging collaborations between fields has really changed the landscape of our research,” she says. “I am very hopeful that progress will be made even faster.”