Institute for Regeneration and Repair

Unravelling the secrets of neurodegenerative diseases, one protein at a time

Proteins misfolding and clumping together, a process known as aggregation, is a key feature seen in several neurological conditions, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

These disorders involve the formation of small, potentially harmful structures called oligomers, which could serve as valuable indicators for early diagnosis. They are incredibly small, however, and much rarer than the healthy non-aggregated proteins. This makes it hard to detect and measure them accurately.

In collaboration with UCB Biopharma, researchers from the University of Edinburgh’s Horrocks group at the IRR Chemistry Hub have come up with an innovative solution called "single-molecule two-color aggregate pull-down," or STAPull for short.

This cutting-edge technique works by examining proteins that have been immobilised (held in place), and labelled with different colours using specific detection antibodies. By carefully analysing signals where these colours overlap using sensitive microscopes, researchers can distinguish and quantify the aggregated proteins, while excluding the individual, non-aggregated ones.

To put it to the test, scientists  used alpha-synuclein, the protein associated with Parkinson’s disease, and found that STAPull could detect these aggregates at physiologically relevant concentrations. Furthermore, STAPull isn't limited to a specific type of sample, but can be applied to a wide range of samples, including biofluids from humans. This versatility makes it a valuable tool in the study of protein aggregates associated with various disorders.

By enabling researchers to detect and quantify protein aggregates, STAPull opens up new possibilities for identifying biomarkers that can be used to diagnose these debilitating conditions early on, which could be crucial in the fight against these diseases.

Currently, patients are diagnosed with neurodegenerative disease based on their symptoms, which appear when the disease is advanced and irreversible cell damage has already occurred.

In this work we present an alternative technology, STAPull, that can detect neurodegenerative disease in human biofluids. We are excited to continue developing this technology and explore if it can aid pre-symptomatic diagnosis.

Dr Rebecca SaleebLady Edith Wolfson Research Fellow, School of Chemistry, Co-Lead Author

Early diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases is a key to an increased range of treatment options, improved long-term survival with independence and improved quality of life. Our new technique, STAPull, improved the detection, especially for early stage oligomeric species, which are potentially more harmful but couldn’t be detected with current methods. We are excited to apply this tool to assisting early diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases in a wide range of samples, including biofluids from humans.

Dr Ji-Eun LeePostdoctoral Research Associate, School of Chemistry, Co-Lead Author

This paper is the result of a fantastic collaboration with UCB Biopharma, who have provided our team with expertise and a range of highly specific antibodies. Using this approach, we’re now able to directly visualise aggregates, and also identify the proteins that they are composed of. This is a game-changer for future diagnostic approaches, and takes advantage of the ability to detect individual molecules.

Dr Mathew HorrocksSenior Lecturer in Biophysical Chemistry and Horrocks Lab team leader, Senior Author, IRR Chemistry Hub

The research is published in Science Advances.

Find out more

Science Advances article

IRR Chemistry Hub