After Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's is the most common neurodegenerative disorder. The cause is still unknown, but scientists are learning more about it each day.
And as it turns out, the key to curing Parkinson's, or at least severely slowing its progression, may be out of this world.
HOW DOES LRRK2 PLAY A ROLE IN PARKINSON'S?
An experiment sponsored by the Michael J. Fox Foundation returned to Earth this weekend. Sent to the International Space Station (ISS) on November 17, astronauts there have been growing a protein, one of the few known to be responsible for inherited cases of Parkinson's disease.
It's called LRRK2, and it has been found to play a role in the disruption of the central nervous system, which leads to Parkinson's patients being unable to control their movements.
There are drugs that may be able to disable the mutation of LRRK2 but because the exact structure of the protein is still unknown, it could lead to unwanted side effects.
WHY DID IT NEED TO GO INTO SPACE?
Scientists have not been able to grow LRRK2 large enough to get clear 3D images of its structure.
By growing it in outer space, without gravity holding it back, the hypothesis is that the LRRK2 protein will grow bigger.
So the Fox Foundation worked with NASA and Merck Labs to send the experiment to space aboard the SpaceX Dragon rocket. The hope is they will get clearer images of the potentially larger LRRK2 protein crystals.
"The hypothesis is that in microgravity conditions, in a freefall condition like the International Space Station is in, you don't have certain things that are hindering crystal growth," said Marco Baptista, the director of the research program at the Michael J. Fox Foundation. "You don't have convection currents that prevent crystals from growing, and you don't have sedimentation because everything is floating around."
A similar experiment was prepared on Earth in 2017 and then sent up to the ISS, but the LRRK2 crystals did not grow large enough. This time, astronauts prepared the experiment there in space.
WILL THIS EXPERIMENT LEAD TO A BREAKTHROUGH FOR ALL PARKINSON'S PATIENTS?
While it's estimated just three percent of Parkinson's patients have this genetic mutation of LRRK2, Baptista says unlocking its mysteries has the potential to help all Parkinson's patients.
The initial analysis of the ISS-grown samples is being handled by Merck. The lead researcher, Paul Reichert, has successfully grown other proteins in space.
The Fox Foundation says it expects results from the study as soon as March, and says it's optimistic this experiment will play a role in pushing Parkinson's research forward.
Parkinson's disease is marked by tremors in a limb, slowed movement, stiff muscles, a deterioration of automatic movements like blinking, and speech and writing changes. It's been estimated that the economic burden of Parkinson's is about $15 billion annually, with the prevalence of Parkinson's expected to double by 2040 as baby boomers age.
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