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Johnson & Johnson award goes to research of the cause of brain cell damage in Parkinson's

Dr. Sarit Larisch, Head of the Cell Death Research Laboratory in the University of Haifa's Department of Biology, has been awarded the prestigious Johnson & Johnson Focused Funding grant for her research exploring the cause of brain cell damage in Parkinson's disease. The award, which is granted each year to scientists in support of innovation and excellence in science, was announced in 2008, and officially conferred earlier this month at an event at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Jersey, USA. This is the first time in three years that an Israeli scientist has received the Johnson & Johnson Focus Funding award.

Dr. Larisch presented her research, funded by the Johnson & Johnson grant, at the conferment ceremony. Her study of Parkinson's disease (PD), a progressive neurodegenerative disorder caused by the death of nerve cells in areas of the brain that control muscle movement, has revealed a direct link between Parkin, which is a protein implicated in the disease, and ARTS, a protein that promotes death of cells.

All cells in our body have the ability to self-destruct by activating an intrinsic cell suicide program called apoptosis, explains Dr. Larisch. In this way, the accumulation of damaged and potentially dangerous cells, such as tumor cells, is greatly limited. Aberrations in this process play a key role in the generation of many human diseases, ranging from autoimmunity and cancer to neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, she explains. ARTS is an important activator of cell death that was discovered by Dr. Larisch several years ago. It is normally present in most of our cells at a central junction within the cell death control machinery, and has the ability to transmit the last irreversible order of destruction to the cell.

Excess of cell death occurring in the brains of PD patients has been reported by many researchers as the major cause for the observed symptoms of PD, yet the direct cause for this excess cell death has remained unclear. Dr. Larisch along with Dr. Stav Kemeny, a post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Larisch's laboratory, and in collaboration with Prof. John P. M. Finberg from the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, have found for the first time a direct link between Parkin, a protein that plays a major role in hereditary Parkinson's Disease, and ARTS. Cellular levels of ARTS protein are tightly regulated to stay at low levels in normal cells in order to prevent unwanted cell death, says Dr. Larisch. But high levels of ARTS overcome the natural resistance measurements in cells and lead to their final destruction through apoptosis. Parkin was found to control the levels of ARTS protein in healthy cells. "In PD brain cells," explains Dr. Larisch, "Parkin contains mutations that compromise its ability to regulate the levels of ARTS. This aberrant function of Parkin in PD brains presumably leads to increased levels of ARTS which in turn induce the uncontrolled death of brain cells."

"Further understanding of how defects in the interaction between ARTS and Parkin cause the loss of brain cells may lead to a better treatment of patients suffering from Parkinson's Disease," Dr. Larisch concludes.


Contact: Rachel Feldman
University of Haifa

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