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NMNAT Protein Protects Against Nerve Cell Degeneration

A new study has found out that a protein called NMNAT can delay the neuronal degeneration process if it is present at a high level. The researchers from Baylor College of// Medicine in a report in the Public Library of Science Biology that appears online today said that NMNAT protects against nerve cell degeneration in fruit flies and mice.

The finding begs the question if a drug might be developed that could stimulate extra protein production and thus neuronal protection – both in injured cells and in those degenerating because of disease, said Dr.Hugo Bellen, the paper's senior author, director of the BCM Program in Developmental Biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. While more work needs to be done to determine whether that would be desirable, Bellen said the finding is an important one because it identifies NMNAT as essential in the life of the body's neurons.

Its first author, Dr. R. Grace Zhai, a postdoctoral fellow in Bellen’s laboratory, did much of the work described in the paper.

The story began two decades ago when researchers in the U.K. discovered a mouse whose injured nerve cells were slow to die. Even when the nerve was cut, it had some function two weeks later while in a normal mouse injured nerves are non-functional within two days, said Bellen.

Five years ago, researchers discovered that the mice had three copies of a gene for a protein that was a fusion of NMNAT and another protein. Bellen and his colleagues sought to determine whether NMNAT was actually protective by studying mutant forms of it in fruit flies or Drosophila melanogaster, a commonly used model organism. NMNAT exists in a single state in the fruit fly, and there is only one form of it.

When Zhai, Bellen and colleagues bred flies that lack the protein in their visual system, they found that the neurons degenerated very rapidly. However, keeping the flies in the dark and preventing their visual neurons from activa
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