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Designer protein gives new hope to scientists studying Alzheimer’s disease

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A new protein has been designed in a University of Sussex laboratory that will help scientists to understand when nerve cells die in people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). AD is a chronic neurodegenerative disease that typically has a slow start but as time passes it gets worse. It is considered to be the cause behind 60 to 70% dementia cases. The earliest symptom of AD is that is short term memory loss “ the person have difficulty is remembering recent events. As the disease progresses, symptoms get worse which includes disorientation, loss of motivation, behavioral issues, etc. Patients eventually withdraw into a shell and gradually bodily functions detoriate. The speed of progression varies from person to person and the life expectancy after diagnosis can be anywhere between three to nine years.

Researchers have discovered that in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease Amyloid-beta (Abeta) proteins stick together which forms amyloid fibrils and which eventually gives birth to clumps between neurons in the brain. The scientists believe that due to the build-up of these proteins, the brain cells die thereby leading to the cognitive decline in patients suffering from the disease. Researchers have not been able to find a reason why this particular protein’s “stickiness” causes cells to die. Also, there have been no tests to ascertain if the sticky clumps of Abeta proteins have different effects, compared with individual proteins that are not stuck together.

The study ‘A critical role for the self-assembly of Amyloid-?1-42 in neurodegeneration’ has been published in the open access Nature Publishing Group journal, Scientific Reports.

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The report reveals that University of Sussex scientists have created a new protein which is almost similar to the Abeta protein in size and shape, but contains two different amino acids (amino acids are the building blocks of protein). The significance of these two extra amino acids is that the new protein does not form amyloid fibres or sticky clumps, and, unlike Abeta, is not toxic to nerve cells.

The researchers working on understanding the causes and role of Abeta proteins are of the opinion that this new protein is going to be an important laboratory tool in their research work. In order to research commercial opportunities for the protein, the scientists who designed it are now working closely with the Sussex Innovation Centre, the University’s business-incubation hub.

Understanding how the brain protein Abeta causes nerve cell death in Alzheimer’s patients is important in order to find a cure for this disease opined Dr. Karen Marshall, who leads on the study. The study reveals that the aggregation of Abeta into bigger species is critical in its ability to kill cells. If the protein could be stopped from aggregating in people suffering from Alzheimer’s, the progression of the disease’s symptoms could be slowed down. The researchers' next aim is to find a way of doing so in the lab and reverse the damaging effects of toxic Abeta.

Another senior author on the study, Professor Louise Serpell, also the co-director of the University of Sussex’s Dementia Research Group said that this newly designed protein is an exciting new tool that will contribute to research to uncover the causes for Alzheimer’s disease. She is hopeful that it will enable tangible progress in finding targets for therapy. Peter Lane, Innovation Support Manager at The Sussex Innovation Centre remarked that the center is thrilled to be working alongside Professor Serpell to make sure the benefits offered by this new laboratory tool can be widely available to the Alzheimer’s research community in the very near future.

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References:

http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/36288

http://medicalxpress.com/news/2016-07-protein-scientists-alzheimer-disease.html