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Molecular origins of tissue vulnerability to aberrant aggregation in protein misfolding diseases

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Freer, Rosie 


Neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and Parkinson’s disease (PD), are increasingly common in our ageing society, are remain incurable. A major obstacle encountered by researchers in their attempts to find effective therapies is represented by the current lack of understanding of the molecular origins of these disorders. It is becoming clear that, although the aggregation of specific proteins, including amyloid β (Aβ) and tau in AD and α-synuclein in PD, hallmark these disorders, such behaviour is a consequence of a wider, system-level disruption of protein homeostasis. In order to identify the genetic factors contributing to such a disruption, the transcriptional changes that occur during neurodegenerative disease progression have received considerable scientific attention in recent years. In our approach, we considered another hallmark of these diseases - their characteristic patterns of spreading across the brain - to identify the nature of the transcriptional signature which underlies tissue vulnerability to protein aggregation. By understanding why tissues succumb in their characteristic sequential pattern in neurodegenerative diseases, and why some tissues remain almost completely resistant throughout, we hoped to obtain insight into the molecular origins of these disorders. Our results show that the AD progression can be predicted from a transcriptional signature in healthy brains related to the protein aggregation homeostasis of Aβ, tau, and the wider proteome. We highlight a relationship between a specific subproteome at high risk of aggregation (formed by supersaturated proteins), and the vulnerability to neurodegenerative diseases. We thus identify an AD-specific supersaturated set of proteins - termed the metastable subproteome, whose expression in normal brains recapitulates the staging of AD, with more vulnerable tissues having higher metastable subproteome expression. We find evidence of these vulnerability signatures transcending the tissue level of interrogation, with cellular and subcellular analysis also showing elevated levels of proteins known and predicted to predispose the aberrant aggregation of Aβ and tau. These results characterise the key protein homeostasis pathways in the inception and progression of AD, and establish an approach with the potential to be applied to other protein misfolding diseases, in the brain and beyond.





Vendruscolo, Michele


Alzhiemer's, Biophysics, Neurodegenerative disease, Protein misfolding, Supersaturation


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge