LOS ANGELES, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- U.S. researchers said Wednesday studies with fruit flies indicate that a mutated gene kills dopamine cells, resulting in Parkinson's disease.
In humans, a lack of the neurotransmitter dopamine has long been known to play a role in Parkinson's disease. It is also known that mutations in a protein called parkin cause a form of Parkinson's that is inherited.
"We put the mutant parkin in all different kinds of tissues and in different kinds of neurons, and it was toxic only to the ones that used dopamine," said George Jackson, associate professor of neurology and senior scientist at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California-Los Angeles.
Jackson, reporting in Wednesday's issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, said that genetically engineering the simple Drosophila (fruit fly) with the mutated parkin gene resulted in Parkinson's-like motor dysfunction in the fly.
Thus, the interaction of mutant parkin with dopamine may be key to understanding the cause of the inherited form of Parkinson's disease.
Having a genetic model of Parkinson's disease in the fruit fly will allow researchers to run mass testing, or "screens," of genes in order to find the novel pathways -- networks of interacting proteins that carry out biological functions -- that control survival of those dopamine-generating neurons.
"Since a lot of those pathways regulating cell survival and death are conserved by evolution all the way from flies to humans," said Jackson, "if we find those genes in the fly, they may represent new therapeutic targets for Parkinson's disease in humans."