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End of Year Report from Anastasia

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease, predominantly affecting the motor system. Current medications for Parkinson’s disease, such as Levodopa, are aimed at managing the characteristic symptoms of this condition, such as tremor and slowed movement. However, there is currently no cure for this devastating disease. A barrier to the development of treatments is an incomplete understanding of the disease mechanisms and causes.

Recently there has been a shift in our understanding of the triggers and mechanisms of the disease. It is thought that a key protein associated with Parkinson’s disease, alpha-synuclein, may mis-fold and aggregate under conditions of cellular stress, which interrupts the ability of brain cells to function normally. Certain cell types within the brain also seem to be more vulnerable to these pathological changes, such as the dopamine-producing nerve cells, which are characteristically lost in Parkinson’s disease. Understanding the causes of the disease, including what initiates early changes to alpha-synuclein and why specific cell types in the brain are more vulnerable, represents a critical step towards the future development of highly targeted clinical interventions to improve outcomes for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Anastasia has investigated cell stress as a trigger of alpha-synuclein pathology using a variety of experimental techniques. One of the main techniques she has used involves growing nerve cells sourced from the brains of mice, and using these cells as a model to learn more about the disease processes occurring in Parkinson’s disease.

The nerve cells are grown in a dish to replicate the connections and conditions of a brain, which can then be challenged with a range of different treatments to probe how alpha-synuclein responds. Anastasia has also investigated cellular vulnerability and resistance of different cell populations within the brain. She uses a technique to fluorescently label specific cellular proteins in order to visualise alpha-synuclein as well as different populations of nerve cells, which have different functions within the brain. Anastasia recently began using human tissue from Parkinson’s disease sufferers to further investigate the relationship between alpha-synuclein changes and differential cell type vulnerability. She hopes that  the work that she is doing will shed light on the mechanisms underlying Parkinson’s disease, which is a vital step towards developing treatments in the future.

Anastasia gave a presentation to staff and students at the Menzies Institute for MedicalResearch in March to pass her Confirmation of Candidature, an important milestone for students marking one year of their PhD. In April, Anastasia took part in the Fred Binns Parkinson’s Foundation event Walk the Bay 2018, where she also gave a short speech on her research. Anastasia also attended and spoke at a morning tea hosted by Menzies to mark World Parkinson’s Day, which gave her the opportunity to discuss her research with the local community. Anastasia is passionate about her project and is enjoying her PhD studies.

“I am so grateful for the scholarship I receive from the Fred Binns Parkinson’s Foundation, which has allowed me to focus solely on my research. I am also very appreciative of the ongoing support and the close relationship I have with Di Binns.”

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