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Health, Sports & Psychology

The Parkinson's problem

Updated Wednesday 9th May 2007

Biochemist Birgit Liss is investigating the causes of Parkinson's Disease in the hope of finding a cure.

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Parkinson's disease affects around 120,000 people in the UK. It's a distressing and degenerative illness, usually affecting the elderly, that reduces control of voluntary motion - for example a sufferer might try to move their arm but nothing happens.

Messages for voluntary movement are normally passed through the brain by nerve cells that release a chemical called dopamine. In a patient with Parkinson's many of these cells start to die. No one knows why they die, but perhaps even more puzzling is the fact that a significant proportion of these cells stay alive.

Birgit Liss wants to find out what makes some cells die but others survive. She hopes to do this by looking at the genes of individual nerve cells, something that only few people have mastered.

Genes are often called the code of life, they contain the information that tells each of the cells in our body how to grow into the right type of cell. There are about 30,000 genes in the DNA of every cell in our bodies, but not all genes are "switched on" (or active) in every cell. So, a skin cell contains the same DNA as a muscle cell, but different genes will be active which determines whether the cell grows into is a skin cell or a muscle cell.

Birgit is looking at the active genetic information of the two types of brain cells - those that die and those that survive in Parkinson's disease. She hopes to identify the genes that determine a cell's fate. It's a difficult process and will take years to complete, but if Birgit is successful these genes could be a starting point to develop therapies and perhaps, over a period of decades, eventually lead to a cure for Parkinson's.





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