The Sherlocks of Science

How scientists’ detective work is helping to combat Parkinson’s disease

Senior beamline scientist Rohanah Hussain on B23
Senior beamline scientist Rohanah Hussain on B23

Science can be seen as a game of detective work; and just like the chap in the Deerstalker hat, scientists rely on evidence, intuition and imagination to solve their puzzles. But guesswork becomes easier the more evidence you have and the more you know where to look. That’s why scientists try to gather as much information as possible on a disease before designing a drug to fight it. Now scientists from Italy have used Diamond to find evidence that could potentially help lead to the development of a cure for Parkinson’s disease, solving one of the greatest challenges in modern medicine.
 
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease. The condition causes nerve cells in the brain to die off, which leads to problems with movement, pain and mental health. About 127,000 people in the UK are affected and worldwide 7-10 million people currently suffer with Parkinson’s. There is currently no cure and no one is sure what causes the disease in the first place.
 
Because Parkinson’s is currently a real conundrum, scientists studying it have little information to go on; this is where the detective work comes in. Recent studies have found that a type of antibiotic is able to halt and even reverse the spread of a neurodegenerative condition called Alexander’s disease. Scientists suspected the same effect might be seen in Parkinson’s sufferers – pre-clinical trials have shown this to be the case. Scientists were overjoyed that the antibiotic appeared to work, but no one knew why.
 
The investigation began with a specific type of protein in the brain which we know is linked with the onset of Parkinson’s. It seemed likely that the antibiotic might be having an effect on this protein and thus potentially disabling the disease. And so an intrepid team led by Dr Ruzza from the University of Padua came to Diamond with a view to studying the protein and solving the mystery.
 
One of Diamond’s life sciences beamlines, B23, provided the perfect tools for the job. B23 is the facility’s only ultraviolet beamline and it offers a technique known as circular dichroism. This enables scientists to look at the properties of materials and determine how everything in the body is working together. Rohanah Hussain is senior beamline scientist and an author on the paper; she observes: “In life science, everything is fluid – your blood, your breath, nothing is static. That’s why we have to be able to understand interactions within the system. Nothing works alone – it all goes together and part of our job is looking into this huge chain of events and trying to work out what’s happening where and when.”
 
Using the unique capabilities on B23, the group have been able to show how the antibiotic combats the spread of Parkinson’s. They found that the drug molecules prevent the Parkinson’s protein gathering together and growing, and they identified the method by which the antibiotic attaches to the protein, pinpointing segments where the two slot together.
 
The site where the antibiotic binds to the protein, inhibiting its growth and preventing the spread of Parkinson’s
The site where the antibiotic binds to the protein, inhibiting its growth and preventing the spread of Parkinson’s
This detailed structural knowledge is a crucial step forwards in treating Parkinson’s disease and certain other neurodegenerative conditions. This detective work has provided another piece in the puzzle, so that future scientists now know what shape to make future drugs against Parkinson’s disease. Giuliano Siligardi, principal beamline scientist on B23, comments: “It’s like having a treasure map so that you know where to dig. Now that scientists have this information, there’s no more guesswork. We have most of what we need to design new and more effective drugs.”
 
Where once drug design was a simple case of trial and error, machines like Diamond are heralding a new era of rational drug design in which scientists are able to identify the atomic structure and properties of their target and then design drugs carefully tailored to the specific qualities of that disease. With this technology, diseases like Parkinson’s that have long eluded scientists might soon be cracked. So that’s the detective work done; the rest is far from elementary, but thanks to modern science, it’s possible.