The mitochondria conundrum

Joanne Nash

UTSC professor Joanne Nash is looking at the role of dysfunctional mitochondria in Parkinson's Disease, with funding from the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

Today, more than 100,000 Canadians suffer from Parkinson’s disease (PD). This number is expected to double over the next 25 years, at which point experts predict PD will be an economic burden to our healthcare system, at $1.2 billion. Of course, the real cost to patients and their families is impossible to measure, but thanks to neuroscientists like UTSC professor Joanne Nash, those afflicted with PD have reason for hope.

Working out of UTSC’s cutting-edge Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress, Nash investigates the cellular and molecular mechanisms that lead to neurodegeneration and the range of debilitating motor dysfunctions that are the hallmarks of Parkinson’s.

“The technologies available at the Centre, such as advanced microscopy, imaging software and the capacity for electrophysiology, allow us to finally understand what’s going on at the cellular level,” says Nash. In the lab, Nash and her graduate students can monitor electrical activity and neurotransmitter functions along specific neural pathways in the brain, and then seamlessly turn their attention to molecular concerns such as mitochondrial dynamics in individuals suffering from PD or to trials of potentially neuroprotective compounds.

Nash recently received a $250,000 grant from The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research to study the protein sirtuin-3, and whether it could have a role in protecting brain cells from dying in PD patients. Members of the sirtuin family of proteins have been shown to have anti-aging effects, and sirtuin-3, which is plentiful in the brain, seems to be associated with the health of mitochondria, the organelles (specialized structures within living cells) that provide power and protection within cells.

“It’s now quite strongly believed that mitochondria, if they’re dysfunctional, can promote neurodegenerative diseases,” says Nash. She hopes that increased sirtuin-3 will protect the health of the mitochondria, and slow or prevent degeneration of the dopamine-producing neurons. If successful, the research could point the way towards the first drug treatment capable of slowing or halting the progression of Parkinson’s disease.