With a $3 million grant from the Glenn Foundation for medical research, UC-Berkeley and UCSF scientist are joining forces to build an integrated research center targeting a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The primary targets for research are prions, which are recently discovered infectious proteins that seem to be the culprit of many neurological disorders.
As people age, proteins and other cellular functions deteriorate overtime. Sometimes these misfolded proteins can aggregate and become toxic to cells. Prions in particular are of special concern, because they are infectious by serving as template to convert other proteins to fold in the same, “rogue” manner. Prions were discovered in 1997 by Dr. Stanley Prusiner, now a co-director for the Paul F. Glenn Center for Aging Research, as the cause of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or more colloquially as “Mad Cow”. Some prions are acquired, such as “Mad Cow” in which the protein is in undercooked beef, some are inherited, and some cases are sporadic. While prions are infectious, none are contagious through normal person-to-person contact (however Kuru, another prionic disease is spread through cannibalism).
According to contemporary research Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s appear to be caused by prions and new therapies will take an interdisciplinary approach. Researchers at UCB and UCSF will look at every stage of a proteins life cycle from the quality control mechanisms in cells, protein chaperones that aid in folding, and protein degradation to find a specific approach for anti-prion therapy.
Dr. Prusiner states that Alzheimer’s alone kills as many people each year as cancer does yet, receives only ten percent of the amount of funding. The Glenn Center research center represents great strides in a new and promising field.
-Will St. Amant