King's College London (KCL) researchers have identified a gene that regulates nerve function, and could be switched off as part of a new Parkinson's treatment. The breakthrough was made by studying the disease in fruit flies, and significantly furthers our understanding of the degenerative condition.

Parkinson's is a wide-spread condition, affecting more than seven million people across the globe. It causes a progressive loss of motor function, as well as cognitive impairment and psychiatric issues, and current treatments only deal with the symptoms of the disease, rather than tackling the route of the problem.

In an attempt to change that, the KCL team turned to fruit flies. They're interesting creatures, and in the past we've tweaked their genes to extend their lifespan, observed their ability to detect cancerous cells, and much more. Now researchers have looked to the little insects to help in the fight against Parkinson's.

Closely studying insects with the disease, the team discovered that damaged mitochondria emit a signal that stop the function of nerve cells – themselves regulated by a gene known as HIFalpha. They then found that when the gene was deactivated, the nerve function – normally disabled by the damaged mitchondria – was restored, and further failure of nerve cells was prevent. The same effect was observed when turning off the gene in fruit flies with Leigh syndrome, suggesting the method may be useful in treating numerous neurodegenerative diseases.

As the HIFalpha gene is found in humans, the research could lead to new treatments. Based on the results from the fruit fly testing, it could be a big breakthrough.

"Like their human counterparts, flies with Parkinson's disease progressively lose motor function, which includes negative impact on their ability to climb," says KCL's Dr. Joseph Bateman. "Remarkably, we found that switching off a particular gene dramatically improved their motor function and climbing ability."

According to the team, the study has significantly improved our understanding of Parkinson's disease. We now know that the damaged mitochondria are responsible for loss of nerve function, and have identified a strong avenue of research for treating the disease.

The study was carried out in conjunction with the University of York, and Imperial College London. The researchers published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Source: KCL