|This post initially appeared on the blog My Parkinson’s Info, on June 22, 2007
The following story discusses genetics and Parkinson’s disease in detail. If you are unfamiliar with genetics, we encourage you to read two very basic stories about genetics:
An Easy Course in Genes and Genetics
Clusters of Related Genes May Cause Parkinson’s Disease
ROCHESTER, Minn. — A new Mayo Clinic study provides strong evidence that the combined effects of common DNA changes (mutations) in several genes largely explain why some individuals get Parkinson’s disease while others don’t. These genes may even predict with great accuracy at what age people might develop their first symptoms.
The findings are published in the June 15 issue of PLoS Genetics.
“This represents a major paradigm shift from single gene studies to genomic pathway studies of complex diseases,” says Demetrius Maraganore, M.D., the Mayo Clinic neurologist and Parkinson’s disease specialist who led the study.
The authors say traditional genetic studies have either discovered rare single gene mutations that cause Parkinson’s disease only in isolated families. Or some studies have identified common single gene variants that are only slightly associated with the disease.
“By examining a large cluster of related genes, we found patterns that make people up to 90 times more likely to develop Parkinson’s than the average person,” says study co-author Timothy Lesnick, a Mayo Clinic biostatistician. “The size of the effects that we observed for genes within a pathway and the statistical significance of the predictive models were unprecedented.”
The models were highly accurate in predicting age of onset of the disease:
- By age 60, 91 percent of patients in the highest-risk group, the group with the most gene clusters, already had Parkinson’s, while only 11 percent of patients in the lowest-risk group did.
- By age 70, every member of the highest-risk group had the disease, where as two-thirds of patients in the lowest-risk group still were disease-free.
- Members of the highest-risk group typically developed Parkinson’s more than 20 years earlier than the lowest-risk group.
The study is significant because:
1. It investigated not just one, but many genes that were predicted to interact in a specific biologic pathway.
2. It provides intriguing new insights into the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and may lead to tests to identify persons at high risk and to new treatments to prevent the disease or halt its progression.
3. These high-risk Parkinson’s disease genes were contained in the biologic pathway for the development of the human brain, as well as repair and remodeling of brain circuits. This raises speculation for another environmental influence that heretofore has been ignored: pre-birth events in the mother’s womb.
How the Researcher’s Performed this Study
The researchers studied the axon guidance pathway, which includes at least 128 genes that encode proteins that play a critical role in guiding the axons (or wiring) of the brain during fetal development. The same proteins also repair the wiring and determine the fate of damaged brain cells later in life.
The Mayo researchers analyzed a dataset that included information for hundreds of thousands of common DNA variants (single nucleotide polymorphisms or “SNPs”) in 443 Parkinson’s disease patients and in 443 control subjects; the controls were unaffected siblings. Researchers identified SNPs within axon guidance pathway genes and used statistical methods to identify combinations (“models”) of SNPs that were highly predictive of susceptibility to Parkinson’s disease, survival free of Parkinson’s disease, and age at onset of Parkinson’s disease. They then validated their findings using data from additional whole genome DNA and RNA variation datasets for Parkinson’s disease.
The Story that Led to the Discovery
Dr. Maraganore and Mayo colleagues published the first whole-genome association study of Parkinson’s disease in 2005, studying hundreds of thousands of common DNA variants in the human genome, but as single and unrelated risk factors. They identified a dozen DNA variants (changes or mutations) that were weakly associated with Parkinson’s disease, but those findings have since been difficult to replicate. Their most significant finding was for a DNA variant within the axon guidance pathway. This was the key clue in that first study, leading them to predict that this axon guidance pathway needed to be investigated. Thus, they focused on a few thousand variants within genes that encode that pathway, and analyzed their joint effects. Dr. Maraganore compares the change in method to the difference between gazing at faint stars with a telescope versus looking at the Milky Way with the naked eye. “Instead of straining to observe the effects of single DNA variants scattered randomly across the universe of the human genome, we observed the effects of a constellation of variants within a well-defined genomic pathway,” he says. “When we looked at the axon guidance pathway in Parkinson’s disease in this way, it lit up.”
Implications for Patients
Parkinson’s disease is an aging-related disorder that affects nearly a million Americans. The cardinal signs include tremors, slowness of movements, and rigid body and limbs. The symptoms predominantly arise from progressive degeneration of brain cells that produce the chemical dopamine. “It is intriguing to consider that patients with Parkinson’s disease may be wired differently from birth,” adds co-author Eric Ahlskog, M.D., Ph.D., the head of Mayo Clinic’s Movement Disorders Section. “This might explain lifelong differences in personality, including avoidance of addictive substances and increased anxiety and depression. It also might explain asymmetries in the movement disorder that occurs in Parkinson’s disease; typically, one side of the body is affected predominantly.”
The findings could quickly lead to genetic tests to identify persons with a high probability of developing Parkinson’s disease during their lifetime. For example, a person with high predicted probability could have a risk of Parkinson’s disease that is 90 times greater than the average person; members of intermediate-risk groups would be 4 to 25 times more likely to develop Parkinson’s. The findings may also lead to development of new treatments that would promote the repair of damaged axons in the brain and spare nerve cells from early death, which could prevent or slow the progression of the disease.
Maternal Health Factors
Researchers say that just as subtle genetic variations within the axon guidance pathway might alter brain wiring during fetal development and predispose to Parkinson’s disease decades later in life, subtle maternal health factors also could alter brain wiring and predispose to the disease.
The researchers say effects of maternal health on the risk of Parkinson’s disease should be explored in future studies. Until now, environmental studies of Parkinson’s disease have largely focused on adulthood exposures, such as to pesticides, smoking and coffee. These same exposures might contribute to the cause of Parkinson’s disease during gestation, they suggest.
The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the National Parkinson Foundation Inc., and Gene Logic Inc.
Source: Mayo Clinic New Release