Key stress protein linked to toxicities responsible for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's

Protein Disulphide Isomerase identified as marker for disease, potential drug target

La Jolla, CA Researchers at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research have discovered a mechanistic link between cellular stress caused by free radicals and accumulation of misfolded proteins that lead to nerve cell injury and death in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease. That link is Protein Disulphide Isomerase (PDI), a chaperone protein that is necessary for proper protein folding in times of cellular stress. Published in today's issue of Nature, these findings revealed that in patients with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease, overproduction of free radicals, specifically nitric oxide (NO), causes inhibition of PDI by a reaction called S-nitrosylation, thereby reducing PDI's neuroprotective benefits. This data provides the first molecular link between NO free radicals and protein misfolding, which is currently thought to be a common pathway in the pathogenesis of virtually all neurodegenerative conditions. Such conditions also include ALS (or Lou Gehrig's disease), Huntington's disease, and many others. Understanding the PDI pathway may lead to the development of new therapeutic approaches for these neurodegenerative diseases and other disorders associated with abnormal protein accumulations due to cellular stress.

"To our knowledge, this is the first published evidence of a link between protein misfolding due to enzymatic machinery malfunction found in a number of degenerative diseases and free radical stress in nerve cells," said Stuart A. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., Professor and Director of the Del E. Webb Center for Neurosciences and Aging at the Burnham Institute and senior author of the study. Dr. Lipton is also a clinical neurologist in La Jolla. "Our data demonstrate a previously unrecognized relationship between NO and protein misfolding in degenerative disorders, showing that PDI can be a target of NO in cellular models of Parkinson's disease and human neurodegenerative disease."

A protein's structure determines its function. Genetic defects as well as exposure to free radicals or possibly other types of cellular stress can cause small structural defects that lead to protein misfolding. If the misfolded proteins cannot be refolded properly or degraded, they may build up in the cell to cause dysfunction. Defects in either the protein folding or degradation pathways can lead to accumulation of misfolded proteins. The accumulation of misfolded proteins is a common pathogenic mechanism in many diseases, including neurodegenerative disorders.

In normal circumstances, PDI levels increase in response to accumulation of misfolded proteins due to cellular stress. PDI acts as a chaperone for aggregated proteins, rearranging their chemical bonds and thus refolding the proteins to function normally. The new research by Dr. Lipton and his colleagues shows that molecules related to the free radical NO, which is present in elevated levels in neurodegenerative diseases, attacks PDI via a chemical S-nitroyslation reaction, altering PDI's structure and blocking its normal neuroprotective function, which ultimately leads to nerve cell injury and even death. These new results also show that this altered form of PDI is present in elevated amounts in patients with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease, indicating that it is a potential marker for the disease as well as a potential therapeutic target.


This article titled "S-Nitrosylated protein-disulphide isomerase links protein misfolding to neurodegeneration," is authored by Drs. Takashi Uehara, Tomohiro Nakamura, Dongdong Yao, Zhong-Qing Shi, and Zezong Gu (all in Dr. Lipton's laboratory), Yuliang Ma (in the Protein Analysis Facility at the Burnham), Eliezer Masliah (at UCSD), Yasuyuki Nomura (at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan), and Dr. Lipton, the senior author. (Dr. Uehara recently joined the faculty of Hokkaido University.)

This research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the American Parkinson's Disease Association, San Diego Chapter, an Ellison Senior Scholars Award in Aging, the Mitsubishi Pharma Research Foundation, and a grant-in-aid from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology of Japan.

About the Burnham Institute for Medical Research
The Burnham Institute for Medical Research, founded in 1976, is an independent not-for-profit biomedical research institution dedicated to advancing the frontiers of scientific knowledge and providing the foundation for tomorrow's medical therapies. The Institute is home to three major centers: the Cancer Center, the Del E. Webb Neuroscience and Aging Center, and the Infectious and Inflammatory Disease Center. Since 1981, the Institute's Cancer Center has been a member of the National Cancer Institute's prestigious Cancer Centers program. Discoveries by Burnham scientists have contributed to the development of new drugs for Alzheimer's disease, heart disease and several forms of cancer. Today the Institute employs over 725, including more than 550 scientists. The majority of the Institute's funding derives from federal sources, but private philanthropic support is essential to continuing bold and innovative research. For additional information about the Institute and ways to support the research efforts of the Institute, visit

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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