A newly discovered protein stands to transform the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. In a new study, researchers at the University of Sheffield show that by blocking this protein, certain types of nerve damage associated with the condition can be halted. In theory, this could help physicians design therapies that stymie the progression of the debilitating illness that currently affects 60,000 Americans each year.

Like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease is an incurable condition characterized by neurodegeneration — a harrowing symptom whereby certain nerve cell populations gradually degrade. This progressive cell death typically results in a range of cognitive impairments, including dementia, tremors, and lack of coordination. The new study, which is published the journal Annals of Neurology, sought to investigate new ways of limiting the extent of this process.

From a series of tests derived from a zebra fish model of Parkinson’s disease, the team concluded that the cell death of dopamine-producing nerve cells was associated with an overactive TP53-inducible glycolysis and apoptosis regulator (TIGAR) — a newly discovered protein believed to regulate glucose breakdown in human cells. The team subsequently found that by blocking this protein, they could save the nerve cells. According to lead researcher Oliver Bandmann, these results could eventually be mapped onto human brains afflicted with similar neurodegeneration.

“These results suggest that we may have unearthed a promising new target for developing treatments that can actually protect dopamine-producing nerve cells lost in Parkinson’s,” he said in a press release. “The first stage of our study was in tiny fish brains which are in many ways both very similar and very different to ours. As a result of these exciting findings we will now look at brain tissue from people with early-onset Parkinson’s as well as people with late-onset Parkinson’s, to see whether the Tigar protein is involved in all forms of the condition.”

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Parkinson’s disease is characterized by four primary symptoms: tremors, stiffness, slowness of movement, and impaired balance. As these symptoms progress, they begin to tax a range of cognitive faculties, making it difficult to perform day-to-day tasks. Patients may also suffer psychiatric symptoms like depression and erratic emotions.

While a finished Tigar inhibitor may fall short of a cure, it will likely prove an indispensable addition to palliative care. “If the next steps of our research go well, and we are right about Tigar, this could help us to develop treatments for people with Parkinson’s that might at least help to slow down the progression of the disease in its tracks — which would be a huge breakthrough,” Bandmann explained.

Source: Laura J. Flinn, Oliver Bandmann, et al. TigarB causes mitochondrial dysfunction and neuronal loss in PINK1 deficiency. Annals of Neurology 531-8249.