Research update: Parkinson's, avocados, eliminating flu shots

Promising advance in treating Parkinson’s disease

Researchers have solved a decade-long mystery about a critical protein linked to Parkinson’s disease that could help to fast-track treatments for the incurable disease. The researchers have developed a “live action” view of a protein called PINK1 in exquisite molecular detail. The discovery explains how the protein is activated in the cell and leads to the development of Parkinson’s disease.

When this protein is not working correctly, it kills dopamine-producing cells in Parkinson’s disease. The discovery is the culmination of a project spanning eight years and provides the first detailed blueprint for the discovery and development of therapeutic agents that could help to slow or even stop the progression of Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by the death of dopamine-producing cells in the brain. More than 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s disease. Currently there are no approved drugs that can slow or stop the progression of Parkinson’s disease, with available therapies only able to treat and alleviate symptoms.

The study findings were published in the journal Nature and for the first time visualize the entire process that leads to the activation of PINK1, a protein directly linked to Parkinson’s disease. Study author David Komander with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Australia said this discovery was made by using innovative cryo-electron microscopy.

“Biotech and pharmaceutical companies are already looking at this protein and this pathway as a therapeutic target for Parkinson’s disease, but they have been flying a bit blind. I think they’ll be really excited to see this incredible new structural information that our team has been able to produce,” Komander said. “I’m really proud of this work and where it may lead.”

Avocados pack hidden health benefit for women

An avocado a day could help redistribute belly fat in women, according to a new study. Researchers studied 105 adults who were overweight or obese and found that women who consumed avocado as part of their daily meal had a reduction in deeper visceral abdominal fat.

Lead researcher Naiman Khan, an Illinois professor of kinesiology and community health, said the goal of the study wasn’t weight loss. The researchers were interested in understanding what eating an avocado does to the way individuals store their body fat. The location of fat in the body plays an important role in health.

Khan said in the abdomen there are two kinds of fat. The fat that accumulates right underneath the skin is called subcutaneous fat, and fat that accumulates deeper in the abdomen is called visceral fat, which surrounds the internal organs.

“Individuals with a higher proportion of that deeper visceral fat tend to be at a higher risk of developing diabetes,” Khan said. “So we were interested in determining whether the ratio of subcutaneous to visceral fat changed with avocado consumption.”

The participants were divided into two groups. One group received meals that incorporated a fresh avocado, while the other group received a meal that had nearly identical ingredients and similar calories but did not contain avocado. At the beginning and end of the 12 weeks, the researchers measured participants’ abdominal fat and their glucose tolerance, a measure of metabolism and a marker of diabetes.

Female participants who consumed an avocado a day as part of their meal had a reduction in visceral abdominal fat (the hard-to-target fat associated with higher risk) and experienced a reduction in the ratio of visceral fat to subcutaneous fat, indicating a redistribution of fat away from the organs. However, fat distribution in males did not change, and neither males nor females had improvements in glucose tolerance.

The researchers said they hope to conduct a follow-up study that would provide participants with all their daily meals and look at additional markers of gut health and physical health to get a more complete picture of the metabolic effects of avocado consumption and determine whether the difference remains between the two sexes.

Eliminating annual flu shots

Scientists at Scripps Research and colleagues have identified a new Achilles’ heel of influenza virus, making progress in the quest for a universal flu vaccine. Antibodies against a long-ignored section of the virus, which the team dubbed the anchor, have the potential to recognize a broad variety of flu strains, even as the virus mutates from year to year.

“It’s always very exciting to discover a new site of vulnerability on a virus because it paves the way for rational vaccine design,” said co-senior author Andrew Ward, who is a professor of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology at Scripps Research. “It also demonstrates that despite all the years and effort of influenza vaccine research there are still new things to discover.”

In a typical year, influenza affects more than 20 million people in the United States and leads to more than 20,000 deaths. Vaccines against influenza typically coax the immune system to generate antibodies that recognize the head of hemagglutinin (HA). This is a protein that extends outward from the surface of the flu virus. From year to year, the head of HA often mutates, necessitating new vaccines.

Researchers have designed experimental influenza vaccines to be more universal, spurring the body to create antibodies against the less-variable stalk region of HA. Some of these universal flu vaccines are currently in early clinical trials. In the new study, a collaborative team of scientists characterized 358 different antibodies present in the blood of people who had either been given a seasonal influenza vaccine or had been naturally infected with influenza. This critical step may lead to a universal flu shot, just one and done for life.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at

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John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute.

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