Dr Heather Mortiboys researches Parkinson's: University of Sheffield

 October 22, 2019

University of Sheffield academic Dr Heather Mortiboys and her team in the Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) and the new Neuroscience Institute are working with the charity Parkinson's UK to modify drug compounds that have been found to boost cell function in people living with Parkinson's.

Dr Mortiboys has been awarded £100,000 of funding by the Virtual Biotech Programme - the drug development arm of Parkinson’s UK - to develop a new treatment that could protect brain cells affected by Parkinson’s disease, potentially slowing, or stopping its progression for the first time.

Making important strides through research

Dopamine-containing brain cells - vital for healthy coordination and movement - rely on energy-producing mitochondria to function, but in people living with Parkinson’s the mitochondria, or ‘powerhouse’ of the cells are disrupted and the cells begin to fail and slowly die.

As a Senior Research Fellow for Parkinson's UK, Dr Mortiboys and her team have identified a number of drug compounds which could boost the function of these dopamine-containing brain cells. Their previous research utilised recently developed methods to grow these brain cells from the skin cells of patients with Parkinson’s disease, and importantly they developed a way to generate them in high numbers - something never achieved before - to test the identified drug compounds on these patient-derived cells.

Dr Mortiboys Sheffield Parkinsons

Dr Mortiboys’ research isolated a number of these compounds which were found to boost the mitochondrial function in these dopamine-producing brain cells and potentially reduce cell death; the cause of the main symptoms of Parkinson’s which consist of loss of movement, tremors and rigidity.

The award is enabling Dr Mortiboys and her team to identify a lead molecule from the compounds which has the most beneficial effects on mitochondrial function of the brain cells, to be progressed along the drug discovery pipeline with partners at the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Sheffield Biomedical Research Centre.

Taking the steps towards developing a cure

It is hoped that the new work will lead to the development of a treatment which will protect these brain cells, slow the progression of Parkinson’s and extend the quality of life for people living with the disease.

Dr Mortiboys said, “The partnership between our team and Parkinson’s UK could lead to a UK first in the development of treatments for Parkinson’s, putting our research one step closer to pioneering a breakthrough treatment for Parkinson’s patients.

“All the clinical treatments for people living with Parkinson’s at the moment are based on easing these sometimes devastating symptoms,” added Dr Mortiboys.

“With this new funding award through the Virtual Biotech Programme, we have the potential to go on to develop a drug treatment which will actively address the root cause of these symptoms to slow, or halt the progression of Parkinson’s for the first time.”

The research forms part of the work of the University of Sheffield’s Neuroscience Institute, that aims to translate scientific discoveries from the lab into pioneering treatments that will benefit patients living with neurodegenerative disorders.

An impressive career path

Dr Mortiboys Sheffield Parkinsons

Dr Mortiboys was awarded her PhD from the International Max Planck PhD Program in Dresden Germany in 2006 with the grade summa cum laude; this project focused on the ‘Influence of mitochondrial energy metabolism on cellular function: implications for neurometabolic and neurodegenerative diseases.’ After which she worked in the Neurology department at the University Hospital Dresden as a research associate on an EU funded project investigating Co-enzyme Q deficiency in patient tissue.

She joined the Neuroscience department at the University of Sheffield to set up mitochondrial investigations in models of Parkinson’s working as a postdoctoral research associate with Professor Oliver Bandmann.

Dr Mortiboys started her own lab when she became a Parkinson’s UK Senior Research Fellow based within the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN). She is also currently a Senior Lecturer in Translational Neuroscience.

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