Honing in on proteins

Marisa Cressatti
PhD candidate
McGill University

Research into the causes of Parkinson’s disease increasingly focuses on the interaction among proteins in brain cells. At McGill University, PhD candidate Marisa Cressatti studies the interaction between two proteins, called alpha-synuclein and heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1). If she discovers that HO-1 can accelerate the spread and accumulation of alpha-synuclein, the protein found in clumps in the brain cells of people with Parkinson’s, researchers could target HO-1 as part of a new drug or gene therapy. Cressatti’s research is made possible through a Graduate Student Funding Award for $20,000 over two years and funded in partnership with Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé.        

Proteins—those complex molecules that regulate many of our body’s functions—have increasingly become the target of research into Parkinson’s disease. For Marisa Cressatti, a neuroscientist and PhD candidate at McGill University, two particular proteins drive her investigation into the causes of Parkinson’s disease.

Cressatti uses a mouse model to study the interaction between alpha-synuclein, long considered a central culprit in Parkinson’s, and another protein called heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1). Researchers already know large clumps of alpha-synuclein accumulate in the brain cells of people with Parkinson’s. These clumps, called Lewy bodies, appear to contribute to the disease’s progression.

Cressatti focuses on whether alpha-synuclein spreads from one brain cell to another, and if so, whether HO-1 accelerates that spread or contributes to the protein’s clumping. 

Using a genetically altered mouse model that has too much HO-1 in its brain, she injects it with a synthetic form of alpha-synuclein to see if it causes any changes in the accumulation of the alpha-synuclein, or increases the protein’s spread across the brain, Cressatti says.  “If we see positive results in this study, we could really implicate HO-1 in this disease.”

This basic research is essential if researchers are to understand how different proteins work together to contribute to Parkinson’s disease. If HO-1 does regulate alpha-synuclein, it then becomes a good target for a drug or gene therapy that could slow down Parkinson’s progression. Cressatti’s research is made possible through a Graduate Student Funding Award for $20,000 over two years and funded in partnership with Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé.     

“If the study is successful we might be able to … design a drug that works on both of them,” she says.

Cressatti’s interest in Parkinson’s disease began when she volunteered with the Alzheimer’s Society during her undergraduate studies. She became a friendly visitor to two women in seniors’ homes, both of whom had dementia.

“I met with them every week, and it was always a highlight,” she says.  

Cressatti loves the problem-solving skills required to work in a lab, and hopes the results of her work will make meaningful differences in the lives of people like the women she visited. She understands the need to build on other research, and to dedicate patience and hard work to her task. 

“The time you spend in the lab can be slow or repetitive or long—but when you do get positive results, it’s exciting and fun. Throughout my undergraduate studies I volunteered with a lot of organizations that focused on the elderly …. That ignited my passion for research into a neurodegenerative disorder.”

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