Finding the proteins to stop Parkinson’s disease

Investigating the molecular regulators of alpha-synuclein homeostasis in Parkinson’s disease

Dr. Yogitha Thattikota
Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University
Basic Research Fellowship
Funded in partnership with Rudy's Run in honour of Rudy Erfle
$100,000 over 2 years

Growing up in the Andhra Pradesh region in southern India, Yogitha Thattikota defied convention to become the first woman in her village to complete a PhD, and to go abroad to study.

“In India, women are not encouraged to go for the highest studies, due to socio-economic burdens,” says Thattikota, now a neuroscientist and post-doctoral fellow at the Montreal Neurological Institute.

But Thattikota was captivated by her high school biology teacher’s demonstrations and stories of the people behind major scientific discoveries. When she decided to pursue a career in science, her mother, an employee in India’s postal service, encouraged her.

“She was the one who fought with everyone to get me through …. My Mom is my inspiration,” Thattikota says.

During her PhD work in cancer biology, Thattikota identified a protein in a biological process that is key to regulating the cell division life-cycle. She’s now taking that expertise to the field of Parkinson’s disease, where she’s using cutting-edge genetic screening tools to identify the proteins that regulate a major actor in Parkinson’s disease: alpha-synuclein.

“We can identify new drug targets or use these (proteins) as biomarkers to identify the disease earlier.”

Researchers already know too much of this critical protein accumulates in the brain cells of people with Parkinson’s, causing clumps that eventually kill the cells that produce the signalling chemical dopamine.

Using CRISPR technology, a powerful tool that allows her to edit DNA, Thattikota will work with neurons derived from stem cells to knock out, or remove, particular proteins and then see what their removal does to the production of alpha-synuclein.

If she can identify proteins that increase or reduce alpha-synuclein, Thattikota’s work would illuminate the process that results in Parkinson’s disease.

Finding these proteins would open a new avenue for a therapy to manipulate them, as well as an opportunity to screen people to see if they have mutated forms of the protein and are at risk for Parkinson’s.

“We can identify new drug targets or use these (proteins) as biomarkers to identify the disease earlier,” Thattikota says.

Before switching her focus to Parkinson’s disease, Thattikota did not fully appreciate the difficulties her relatives at home, including an aunt and uncle, were facing.

“Now I understand what they are going through.”

That knowledge of the ravages of Parkinson’s helps to drive Thattikota’s research – along with her determination to make her mother proud.

How your support made this research project possible

As an international post-doctoral researcher in Canada, Parkinson Canada’s Basic Research Fellowship Grant is critical to Thattikota’s ability to bring her cancer biology expertise to the Parkinson’s field.

“This money is very important to me because it gives me stability and freedom to do my research, open my ideas and further study the Parkinson’s disease process,” she says.

In India, many people with Parkinson’s lack access to treatment, specialists, or care, she says. She encourages donors to consider the impact their contributions can have, both in Canada and abroad.

“By donating to this type of research, we can help people who are in developing countries, who don’t have the outreach and counselling programs to help their daily problems,” she says.

“Donate as much as you can.”

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