JA team of UW researchers has discovered how to revive dying neurons that are responsible for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The new findings could eventually help halt the progression of such diseases by averting the deterioration of the neurons involved in such diseases.

UW professor of pharmacology Jeff Johnson, the lead researcher of the group, has been recognized across the nation for his recent findings concerning Alzheimer’s disease and the natural defense mechanisms involved in similar neurodegenerative diseases.

According to Johnson, the protective elements of neurons in diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, increasingly diminish with disease progression, leading to further disease stages.

Everyone has a different level of natural neuronal protection, according to Johnson. Some individuals are more susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases, he said.

The goal of Johnson and members of his laboratory is to discover ways to increase the defense mechanisms in the brain and thus halt progression of disease.

By activating multiple defense genes involved in fighting dangerous free radicals, neurons in the brain are protected. This is the basis of the researchers’ work.

Marcus Calkins, a molecular and environmental toxicology graduate student who works in Johnson’s lab, recently discovered that a protein called Nrf-2 regulates the activation of a defense gene. Calkins found that when Nrf-2 was inserted into cells, it revives the defense mechanisms of vulnerable neuronal cells.

Calkins determined this by transplanting Nrf-2 into the brains of mice. Weeks later, after exposing the mice to neurotoxins, the Nrf-2 protected the neurons from cell death.

Most neurodegenerative diseases follow a similar pathway to neuronal cell death, according to Johnson. Nrf-2 is involved in each disease pathway and thus has broad applications for potential drug treatment.

“A single drug that modulates [this] pathway could have the potential of effecting multiple diseases and disease states,” says Johnson.

Johnson says his research is important because it is in an area of research that does not have a strong therapeutic approach that can modulate neurodegenerative diseases.

“These are the diseases of the next decade that are going to have a huge economic and social impact in the way that we survive,” says Johnson. “[When] you meet patients and actually talk to [them] … it gives you a very different perspective on the potential impact of what you are doing and what the work could do.”

Johnson’s team is currently working on the applications of neural implantation in order to replace neurons already lost to neuronal degeneration. Currently, the cell source most prolific for transplanting is a type of a stem cell.

“We can engineer the stem cells to be protective cells and then transplant those into the brain,” says Johnson. “[This] could lead to … greater neuronal survival and less number of cells having to be transplanted.”

Johnson is currently in the process of negotiating a license with Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation for his recently founded company, Mithridian, Inc., to develop the Alzheimer’s disease project.

-Rachel Patzer contributed to this article