Scientists aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are working to find out new ways to treat and prevent Parkinson’s disease, a chronic neuro-degenerative disorder that affects more than five million people globally, according to NASA.
The team working on the project, Crystallization of LRRK2 Under Microgravity Conditions-2 (CASIS PCG 16), grows protein crystals of Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2) on the space station.
People with Parkinson’s disease experience increased function of LRRK2, and genetic studies link mutations in the LRRK2 gene to an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, NASA said in a statement. Medications that inhibit LRRK2 are in development, but without knowing the precise structure of this enzyme, such work is like making a key without knowing the shape of the keyhole it must fit.
Growing LRRK2 crystals on Earth is difficult and does not produce samples with high enough quality for researchers to determine the protein’s shape and structure — the keyhole.
Protein crystals grow larger and more uniformly in space, though. Scientists can analyse the larger space-grown crystals to get a better idea of how the disease works and develop drugs — or keys — that target the condition more effectively and with fewer side effects.
This investigation builds on a previous experiment, CASIS PCG 7. For CASIS PCG 16, the crew used larger sample wells, filled the wells during flight, and monitored the LRRK2 crystals as they grew.
The space station research may bring those working to treat and prevent Parkinson’s disease one step closer to finding the right key.