Unique Parkinson's protein may help destroy TB-causing bacteria

A unique protein being studied in Parkinson's disease research may help to destroy tuberculosis-causing bacteria as well, according to a study published on Wednesday in Nature.

Jeffrey Cox, a microbiologist and TB expert at the University of California at San Francisco, and his colleagues found that the enzyme Parkin may help to fight both Parkinson's disease and tuberculosis. Cox is looking into ways to increase Parkin activity in mice infected with TB using a strategy similar to one being used by one of his colleagues to stave off neurodegeneration in Parkinson's disease.

Cox became interested in the Parkin enzyme when he learned that naturally-occurring variations in the Parkin gene were associated with increased TB susceptibility.

"Because of the commonalities between mitophagy and the xenophagy of intracellular mycobacteria, as well as the links between Parkin gene polymorphisms and increased susceptibility to bacterial infection in humans, we speculated that Parkin may also be recruited to M. tuberculosis and target it for xenophagy," Cox said.

Cox argues that the connection of Parkin to damaged mitochondria and infectious mycobacteria may date back more than one billion years. Cox said mitochondria evolved from bacteria taken up by cells in a symbiotic relationship. Dysfunctional mitochondria could lead to the recognition of the mitochondria as foreign entities in the body.

Cox is now working with Kevan Shokat, a colleague, to develop a method for increasing Parkin activity against cell-invading bacteria.

"We are exploring the possibility that small-molecule drugs could be developed to activate Parkin to better fight tuberculosis infection," Cox said.