Protecting critical brain cells

Function and neuroprotective potential of new target genes in Parkinson’s disease

Julia Obergasteiger
Postdoctoral Fellow
Laval University
Basic Research Fellowship
$80,000 over 2 years

Pinpointing the function that genes and proteins play in the onset and progression of Parkinson’s disease is critical to finding drugs and therapies that will prevent, halt or treat the illness.

At Laval University, Postdoctoral Fellow Julia Obergasteiger is concentrating on a gene known as Flcn. Researchers believe this gene plays a role in protecting the brain cells that generate dopamine, the signalling chemical that helps initiate movement. The death of dopamine cells leads to Parkinson’s disease.

Now Obergasteiger, a neuroscientist, is using mouse models to see if removing this gene from the brain cells affects the cells’ ability to survive and recycle toxic and or unwanted material.

Researchers believe malfunctions in this recycling mechanism within the dopamine-producing cells allow clumps of another protein, called alpha-synuclein, to build up, killing those cells.

“The long-term goal is to find something that protects the neurons from dying. That is something that could help people with Parkinson’s disease who are already diagnosed, to protect the neurons they still have from dying.”

Interfering with this process – by deleting the Flcn gene – could jump-start the cells’ ability to recycle and dispose of too much alpha-synuclein, preventing the accumulation of clumps.

“We already saw that deleting Flcn protects neurons, but we don’t know how, at the moment,” says Obergasteiger. “We want to find out if the recycling process in neurons is an important part [of the process].”

If Obergasteiger and her colleagues can prove that Flcn is critical to the recycling process within cells, that knowledge could eventually lead to a new drug, or the use of an existing drug, to protect the dopamine-producing brain cells.

“The long-term goal is to find something that protects the neurons from dying,” says Obergasteiger. “That is something that could help people with Parkinson’s disease who are already diagnosed, to protect the neurons they still have from dying.”

Obergasteiger, who grew up in Italy’s South Tyrol region, was drawn to science by her curiosity about how her own body worked. She considered studying medicine but decided research into Parkinson’s disease met her need to help others while satisfying her scientific curiosity.

While she was well into her PhD studies, her uncle was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, giving her even more motivation to unlock the degenerative process.

She’s particularly interested in why hereditary forms of Parkinson’s and sporadic forms with no genetic component can result in the same symptoms.

“For me, spending my time doing research into something that at some point can help people, is well-spent time. Every day I see why I’m doing that.”


How your support made this research project possible

For Obergasteiger, receiving this fellowship from Parkinson Canada validates her ideas, she says. It means “someone thinks it is a good investment to give it to me to do my research. It means I can really change something; I can do something with this money.”

The fellowship guarantees her a stable position for the next two years.

“I can work, and I can do my best to push the project forward and finalize something.”

The fellowship is also important because it draws her into a network for other researchers and other postdocs in the Parkinson’s field.

“Parkinson Canada is a really good base for that, it helps you get in contact with other people doing similar research and with people with Parkinson’s who are interested in research in any way.”

People considering a donation to Parkinson should be reassured that “the projects that are submitted are validated,” she says.

“The money that we have is invested in projects that we think are good and valid to be pushed forward. You know that the money is going to the right places.”

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