Scientists from Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry (PUPSMD) have received funding of more than £58,500 from BRACE, a charity which supports research into Alzheimer’s disease, for a pilot study to investigate how a failure in our cells’ ‘recycling centre’ could hold the key to new drug therapies for dementia diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies.

In order for our bodies to run effectively and healthily, our cells undertake a ‘self-eating’ process called autophagy. Autophagy works like a ‘recycling centre’, cleaning up failed components in cells and recycling them for the nutrition and energy needed for cell survival.

Autophagy also clears away toxic build-ups of proteins in the cells – build-ups that cause the death of neurones, which in turn has been shown to cause Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

In order to do its job, autophagy needs vehicles to carry the built-up proteins to a cellular clear-up system called lysosomes. These vehicles are called autophagosomes and are usually broken down by lysosomes as part of the process.

The research team from PUPSMD have discovered that in dementia diseases the build-up of toxic proteins increases the formation of autophagosomes, but damages the function of lysosomes. This means that excessive autophagosomes carrying built-up proteins cannot be broken down by the lysosomes, leaving behind what PUPSMD scientists are calling ‘futile autophagosomes’.

The team have also discovered that the increased formation of ‘futile autophagosomes’ is toxic to cells. The pilot study will investigate if a reduction in their number is beneficial to cell survival in Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

The pilot study is led by Dr Shouqing Luo, Reader in Neurobiology at PUPSMD. He commented: 

“Our cells have a neat process for removing what is no longer functional and recycling to create nutrition and energy for new cells, a process which is vital to our continuing good health. In dementia diseases this recycling process doesn’t work as well – in general terms the recycling trucks still accumulate and pick up the waste, but the recycling centre is damaged so can’t deal with the waste or the truck, resulting in cell damage and potentially death. We are excited by this pilot study because it will bring important knowledge to the causes of dementia diseases, which in turn is likely to yield results that shed light on a drug discovery to deal with them.”

BRACE Chief Executive Mark Poarch said: 

“I am delighted that BRACE has been able to fund this project, which could one day help people who develop dementia and other neurological conditions. BRACE has supported several recent initiatives at universities in the region since 2014. We hope that people across the South West, and who are affected by the conditions covered by this research, will get behind our fundraising, so that we can do even more. The need for research funds is currently far greater than we can meet, and we want to ensure that we can always fund good research proposals. It would be tragic if research that could change for the better the lives of millions of people was stalled for lack of money.”