Last updated at 8:24 AM on 20th December 2010
Hundreds of proteins crucial to brain health have been identified, unlocking a new frontier in the treatment of conditions from Alzheimer’s to autism.
Experts have discovered that faults in these ‘repeat offender’ brain proteins are responsible for 130 conditions.
The breakthrough could greatly speed the development of new drugs for degenerative and psychiatric illnesses, as well as allowing better diagnosis.
It also means that a magic bullet-type drug could be created to treat several illnesses.
Professor Seth Grant, a neuroscientist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, near Cambridge, said: ‘There is a potential gold-rush, a whole new frontier for drug discovery.’
'New frontier in drug discover': The researchers have identified over 1000 proteins key to the elusive synapse junctions between nerve cells in the brain
The excitement centres around synapses, the ‘junction boxes’ that
connect nerve cells in the brain and are key to transmitting and
With each of the brain’s 100billion cells capable of connecting to
more than 1,000 others, faults in the synapses can have devastating
effects. Until now, little was known about the proteins that lie at
By studying tiny slivers of tissue taken from the brain, Professor
Grant and colleagues at Edinburgh University identified 1,461 synapse
proteins, and then linked them to conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s
and Parkinson’s disease, to autism, learning difficulties and
The synapse proteins were ‘at centre stage of a large range of human
diseases affecting many millions of people’, Professor Grant said.
He said: ‘In some cases, the proteins acting at the synapse are
absolutely vital to the whole nature of the disease.
‘In the case of Alzheimer’s, it is well recorded that the brain
shrinks because of the loss of nerve cells. But what has become apparent
is that the synapses rot away before the nerve cells.’
The finding that the same proteins are involved in many diseases
could lead to multi-condition treatments. Finding a new use for an
existing drug would be much quicker than developing one from scratch.
‘We also can see ways to develop new genetic diagnostic tests and ways
to help doctors classify the brain diseases,’ said Professor Grant.
The study also showed synapse proteins have changed little over
evolution – perhaps because they are so vital to health.
Jeffrey Noebels, professor of neurology, neuroscience and human
genetics at Baylor College of Medicine in the U.S., said: ‘We now have a
comprehensive molecular list of more than 1,000 suspects.
‘Every seventh protein in this line-up is involved in a known
clinical disorder and over half of them are repeat offenders.’
The data gives ‘a front row seat to witness neuroscience unravel the
complexity of human brain disorders,’ he added.
Professor Jonathan Seckl, of the Queen’s Medical Research Institute
in Edinburgh, said: ‘This splendid collaborative study is a major step
forward which will illuminate the causes of many of the major mental
health and neurological disorders as well as indicating new ways to
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