Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Getting drunk on knowledge down at the lab

Parkinson's UK arranged for sufferers to visit the Parkinson's lab of Dr Flaviano Giorgini at the University of Leicester. Every lab funded by Charity should do this; it puts a human face to the disease and also a human face to the scientists working on a cure. Thank you to Dr Giorgini and members of his lab for an interesting day!

Science is hard work. Thank you to the Giorgini lab and Parkinson's labs around the world who work tirelessly to understand Parkinson's and find a cure. This would not be possible without charities such as Parkinson's UK and ultimately those who support them.

The lab is an interesting place...

Yeast, nerve cells, fruit flies and worms put on their white lab coats and alongside the humans (including Dr Flaviano Giorgini and members of his group) trundle into the different labs; all are ready for another day down the mines of knowledge, attempting to chip away another of nature's secrets.

In each of the four labs, set up for different experiments, bottles of chemicals line the shelves, the white benches are ready to receive the various experimental apparatus and fancy looking machines blink into life. There is a sense of anticipation; knowledge is discovered here!

Yeast work in the first lab. They are single cell organisms that amazingly share their basic cellular functions with humans. They may produce waste gas (carbon dioxide like us) that causes bread dough to rise and waste excretions (alcohol, unlike humans) that get us all drunk, but they also generate knowledge of how genes work. For example, a gene that is mutated in some Parkinson's sufferers, dj1, has its equivalent in yeast so these organisms can be used as specialist tools to extract dj1 knowledge from the mine.

Down the corridor in the tissue culture lab, human-derived nerve cells are grown and carefully looked after; like small children, the cells are washed and fed every day and kept in a clean and warm environment (in this case a 37°C incubator). Sometimes genes are artificially introduced into these cells to produce specific proteins; for example, GFP protein is generated, which gives off green light when light of a certain wavelength is shone on it. Microscopes in the third lab are set up to capture images of these "green" cells; they can show where a protein is or whether proteins interact within the cell. More knowledge is chipped away!

It is important to link what happens inside cells to the effect on the whole organism. This is why fruit flies and worms are employed in the lab. These organisms also have equivalent Parkinson's genes and remarkably when mutated they show Parkinson's symptoms such as movement difficulties.

Each organism and each lab work together to extract the various rocks of knowledge and then the humans have to work out how it all fits together and generate a coherent picture of what is happening to cause Parkinson’s. For example, nerve and Yeast cells found that dj1 protein works in pairs and these protein pairs are required for dj1 to do its job in the cell; which is to mop up the chemical waste products of the generation of energy in mitochondria within cells. Interestingly, drugs can help dj1 to form pairs better. They now hope to test if these drugs lead to less Parkinson's symptoms in mutated flies.

In addition the lab has found that Rab GTPases, involved in transporting proteins around the cell, improve many symptoms seen in Parkinson’s fruit flies, including locomotion problems.

At the end of a long day, benches are cleared of equipment and wiped clean; nerve cells, yeast, fruit flies, worms and humans hang up their lab coats and head home. The labs are ready for tomorrow and another shift at the coal face of knowledge. The lights in each lab are never turned off: the need for such research is too great…


  1. As ever Johnny your blogs are full of amazing information and insight into the world that is Parkinsons. You are admirable in your quest to understand this vicious disease. Much love and respect man!! Wendy xx

  2. Cant believe i finally managed to reply! xx