Screening for chemicals that could keep brain cells healthy

Professor Siegfried Hekimi
Professor Siegfried Hekimi

Mitochondria, the energy-producing building blocks in cells, are essential to keeping those cells healthy and functioning. Researchers know that having defective mitochondria is a trait that several neurodegenerative diseases share, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

At McGill University, Professor Siegfried Hekimi is honing in on a molecule called ubiquinone, also known as Co-enzyme Q (CoQ).  Hekimi, a geneticist, knows that mitochondria need ubiquinone to produce energy and to keep cells healthy. He also knows that pathologists have found low levels of ubiquinone in the brains of some people with Parkinson’s disease after they have died.

Hekimi theorizes that if researchers find a way to boost the amount of ubiquinone in cells, or to make whatever ubiquinone remains in damaged cells work more efficiently, that would help mitochondria to function better.  More ubiquinone might even repair damaged cells.

“Mitochondria are the weak point for aging brain cells,” Hekimi says. “We don’t know at this stage that boosting mitochondrial function will cure the disease, but … it should certainly help alleviate symptoms.”

Hekimi and his team have developed a tool to screen chemical compounds to observe their effect on ubiquinone.  Once they administer compounds to cells that are cultured in a dish, the cells turn different colours depending upon whether the chemicals boost ubiquinone and keep the cells alive, or whether they die.

The more positive results Hekimi and his students get from the compounds they try, the more avenues for drug discovery they have opened.

For Hekimi, whose former PhD supervisor in England has Parkinson’s disease, the research is now even more personal.

“I cannot give a prediction of how long it will take, but I’m sure we will find something,” he says with confidence.

Professor  Hekimi’s research is being funded by a one-year, pilot project grant of $45,000 from the Parkinson Canada Research Program.  To read about other research projects being funded by the Program, visit