Huntington’s disease — it’s an incurable illness that has had scientists baffled for a long time. But there’s now hope for treatment, and it comes in the form of a recent study.
Before we get to the exciting study results, let’s review Huntington’s. This progressive disease occurs when brain cells (“neurons”) start to malfunction and die off. Huntington’s is genetic, which means that the tendency for a single mutated gene is passed on from parent to child. The mutated gene produces a protein, which is what causes problems with the brain cells. This disease is lurking in the body from birth, but the signs don’t usually show up until the person reaches middle age.
If you are unaware that Huntington’s runs in your family, the first signs can be very hard to detect. It usually shows up first as personality changes. These can include depression, mood swings, or irritability. The disease can also manifest as memory problems or decision-making difficulties. These emotional and mental symptoms can get worse and worse, even turning into full dementia. Associated physical problems start out mild, such as klutziness; but can progress to difficulty swallowing, jerky spasms throughout your body, inability or difficulty to control parts of your body, and slurred speech. This disease is disabling and, eventually, fatal.
There is currently no real treatment for Huntington’s disease. There are drugs that can help relieve some of the symptoms, such as uncontrollable movement and mood problems (all with their respective side effects, of course). In addition, Parkinson’s patients can receive non-medicinal help, such as speech therapy and physical therapy.
The lack of proven treatment or a cure is what makes the latest news so exciting. A research team spearheaded by the Buck Institute for Age Research has discovered around 200 proteins that interact with the mutated protein that causes Huntington’s. That’s a lot of proteins!
First, the researchers did some very detailed scrutiny of the human “genome” and “proteome.” The genome is the collection of all the body’s genetic material. The proteome is the collection of proteins used by the genome. Researchers basically looked at how the proteins interacted in people with the genetic predisposition for Huntington’s. That’s how the researchers came up with the hundreds of different proteins that had some kind of relationship with the Huntington’s protein. Researchers then ran some tests on fruit flies that were genetically given a Huntington’s- like condition, and found that modifying the proteins could reduce the brain cell damage in the flies.
This means that there are more than 200 proteins with the potential to be used as treatments for Huntington’s disease. We’re talking tons of healing possibilities here. Next, the scientists need to do a similar test using mammals. Then it’ll be on to human studies.