Could Parkinson’s disease be an autoimmune disorder? A recent study from Columbia University revealed a possible link between the immune system — the body’s defense system against disease — and alpha-synuclein, the sticky protein that clumps in the cells of people with Parkinson’s disease (PD).
Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF)-funded researchers published in the scientific journal Nature that molecular structures derived from alpha-synuclein are recognised by the immune system in people with PD, which could produce an autoimmune response and harm cells.
The investigators, led by David Sulzer, PhD, will next test whether blocking the autoimmune response could impact Parkinson’s progression.
This latest study led by CUMC and researchers from the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology in California has shown a normally soluble protein that aggregates in the substantia-nigra’s cells called alpha-synuclein can trigger the body’s immune system.
The study took blood samples from 67 volunteers with Parkinson’s disease and 36 controls, and mixed them with proteins found in nerve cells, including alpha-synuclein.
While there was little reaction in the samples taken from the control subjects, there was a clear immune response in those with Parkinson’s, indicating that the white blood cells in their immune system had previously been exposed to the proteins.
“Our findings show that two fragments of alpha-synuclein, a protein that accumulates in the brain cells of people with Parkinson’s, can activate the T cells involved in autoimmune attacks,” said Sulzer.
These findings build on growing evidence supporting a role of the immune system in PD. Studies have found activated immune system markers in the brains of those with Parkinson’s. Other research has associated Parkinson’s with variants in genes tied to the immune system, and Dr. Sulzer and his colleagues previously identified a link between these genes and alpha-synuclein function in models of Parkinson’s.
Another recent study, also funded in part by MJFF, revealed an association between the immune system and the LRRK2 protein. Mutations in the LRRK2 gene are linked to Parkinson’s.
We’ll continue to follow and share findings from this promising area of research.