Inhibiting the activity of LRRK2 kinase — an enzyme whose mutated form is one of the most common genetic causes of Parkinson’s disease — may benefit patients both with and without this disease-related mutation, a study finds.
The results of this study, “LRRK2 inhibition prevents endolysosomal deficits seen in human Parkinson’s disease,” were published in Neurobiology of Disease. The research was supported by the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
Mutations in the leucine rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2) gene are one of the most commonly known genetic causes of Parkinson’s disease. Evidence indicates that in people with idiopathic Parkinson’s, in which the disease has no known cause, the LRRK2 protein is overly active, regardless of the patient’s mutation status — whether or not they have a mutated LRRK2. That overly active protein leads to the malfunctioning of lysosomes, the special compartments within cells that digest and recycle different types of molecules. Lysosomal dysfunction is involved in the formation of protein aggregates, or clumps, called Lewy bodies, which contribute to Parkinson’s and, therefore, neurodegeneration.
Therapies that can inhibit, or block LRRK2 are currently being tested in human clinical trials. However, it is still unclear whether blocking LRRK2 protein activity in people with idiopathic Parkinson’s can prevent lysosomal dysfunction and consequent neurodegenerative processes.
To learn more, investigators at the University of Pittsburgh now studied post-mortem brain samples, specifically from a motor brain region called the substantia nigra, which is severely damaged in Parkinson’s. The researchers characterized lysosomal abnormalities in the surviving dopaminergic neurons — the main source of dopamine, the loss of which is a hallmark of this disease — of idiopathic Parkinson’s patients.
When compared with healthy controls, Parkinson’s patients had more abnormal lysosomes. These changes occurred during the early stages of lysosomal development, the researchers found.
The team then investigated whether these post-mortem cellular findings could be replicated in an animal model of Parkinson’s. Rats were given two distinct dose regimens of rotenone, a pesticide that inhibits mitochondria, or the “powerhouses” of cells. Blocking mitochondria leads to cellular death and the onset of parkinsonian features.
Nine to 14 daily doses of rotenone reproduced many idiopathic Parkinson’s features, including lysosomal defects. This caused neurodegeneration in the striatum and substantia nigra, two brain areas involved in motor control.
Interestingly, five daily doses of the pesticide weren’t enough to cause cell death, but did increase the accumulation of Parkinson’s-related alpha-synuclein protein and produce changes in lysosomes.
“These data demonstrate that, in rotenone-treated rats, [alpha]-synuclein protein levels rise in the dopaminergic neurons prior to the onset of frank neurodegeneration,” the researchers said.
When overactive LRRK2 was blocked in rotenone-treated rats, the protein’s activity was reduced. That, in turn, improved the overall health of lysosomes and prevented the accumulation of alpha-synuclein. These effects were observed in animals without a genetic predisposition to develop Parkinson’s, suggesting that the LRRK2 kinase inhibitors may be effective beyond LRRK2-mutated patients.
“Our work suggests that drugs that block LRRK2, some of which have entered clinical trials, will be useful for people with typical Parkinson’s disease,” J. Timothy Greenamyre, MD, PhD, the study’s lead author, said in a press release.