One small step for… LRRK2

Scientists have sent a protein known to be involved in Parkinson’s to the International Space Station. It could be a giant step towards developing better treatments.

The protein on this space adventure is LRRK2 (pronounced lurk 2). Mutations in the gene that codes for the LRRK2 protein are surprisingly common — about 3% of people with Parkinson’s may have a mutation in this gene.

LRRK2 is involved in many processes in the cell. But mutations in the gene change the way the protein works, disrupting these processes, and eventually leading to the loss of brain cells and the development Parkinson’s. For instance, mutated LRRK2 can disrupt the process cells use to recycle unwanted or damaged proteins, called ‘autophagy’. If this recycling system isn’t working properly, unwanted proteins can build up inside brain cells, causing them to become stressed and die.

Many of the processes that are disrupted in those with LRRK2 mutations are also seen in people with sporadic Parkinson’s. This means it’s not just people with the genetic mutation in LRRK2 that may benefit from research into this protein. Drugs that target these faults may also help the estimated 10 million people with Parkinson’s worldwide.

Drugs that target LRRK2

Researchers know that designing drugs to stop LRRK2 misbehaving could save precious brain cells —something no treatment can currently do. But to design these drugs they need to know what this protein looks like, which is proving a little difficult.

To see the structure of proteins, scientists use a technique called X-ray crystallography. The first step is to make crystals of the protein to put into the X-ray machine.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds — making high quality, pure crystals that are good enough to use in X-ray crystallography can take years. And unfortunately the LRRK2 protein does not like making crystals here on Earth.

“The quality of our crystals is just not good enough…”
— Sebastian Mathea, researcher at the University of Oxford

The crystals that have been made so far are too small or have defects, which means the scientists cannot get a clear view of what the protein looks like. This is where space travel comes in — the microgravity environment of the international space station may allow larger crystals with fewer defects to form.

What’s next?

We’ll have to wait to see if microgravity will help to grow better protein crystals. But we’ll keep our fingers crossed that a short stint in space is what is needed to unlock the mysteries of LRRK2, and help researchers to design better drugs for Parkinson’s.


Wave at LRRK2 as it flies past you

The International Space Station is the third brightest object in the sky and easy to spot if you know when to look up.

You can find opportunities to wave at LRRK2, as it hurtles past travelling thousands of miles an hour, at spotthestation.nasa.gov