What can worms teach us about Parkinson's?

Dr Anton Gartner
Dr Anton Gartner is a Parkinson's UK funded researcher at the University of Dundee.

Anton's research project using C.Elegans worms (PDF, 262KB) inspired us to create Dave the Worm - the newest member of the Parkinson's UK fundraising team.

We recently asked Anton to tell us a bit more about his life in the lab:

When did you first start working with worms?

I started working with worms in 1997 when I was a postdoctoral researcher in Cold Spring Harbor - a famous lab close to New York. At the time I was using my worms to learn more about how and why cells die.

As I write, thousands of the cells that make up my body are dying. But luckily we're all made of billions of cells so most of the time cell death isn't a problem. In fact, too little cell death can lead to cancerous tumours forming – so the right cells dying at the right time is actually vital to staying healthy.

Of the thousand cells that make up a worm like Dave, 131 die. And I was one of the first to study how and why cells die in my worms.
Have you met Dave the Worm?

We now know that our worm cells behave in a very similar way to human cells when it comes to cell death and that many of the same genes are involved.

How did you become interested in Parkinson's?

My interest in Parkinson's actually started on the staircase at my University. I bumped into my colleague Dario who mentioned that he'd started working on 2 of the genes related to rare inherited forms of Parkinson's.

A gene is a short segment of DNA that provides the instructions for making a protein, and proteins are the building blocks our cells are made of and the machines that do the cells work.

For scientists the challenge is to work out how these machines work and what they do inside our cells. And that's where our worms come in.

The first experiment we tried in our worms was removing the 2 important Parkinson's genes (PINK1 and LRRK2) completely. But to our surprise, without the genes our worms wiggled normally, grew happily and developed no Parkinson's-like problems. Quite a disappointment at the time!

By this time I was becoming fascinated with Parkinson's so when I saw that Parkinson's UK were offering research grants to help scientists like me investigate this new and exciting avenue of research I decided to apply for funding to study the condition in my worms.

Luckily for me, worms like Dave have the same type of nerve cells that are lost in the brains of people with Parkinson's. But instead of having millions, the worms only have 8 of these vital cells which we can study in action inside the living animals.

Working with our worms has already helped us understand more about what happens when these dopamine-producing cells start to die and I'm really hopeful that our work will lead to treatments that slow or stop the progression of Parkinson's.

We'll have more to share with you on the blog from Anton this week - so look out for the next installment.

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