The body has systems in place to identify misfolded proteins and get rid of them, but with age these systems stop working properly and more aggregates form, with debilitating effects on the brain. “In theory, if you can target the misfolded proteins, you could get rid of them before they cause problems,” says Kumita.
“When patients are showing symptoms and being diagnosed with Parkinson's or Alzheimer’s, these pathological aggregates are often already forming. If we could diagnose patients very early on, we’d have a better chance of preventing aggregation and the progression of dementia.”
Kumita has started identifying specific protein aggregates that form in the brain (there are many different configurations and sizes) and is testing ways to target and destroy them.
She’s learned a lot from experiments in test tubes and now wants to see how the process works inside body cells, where many other things are happening in tandem. That’s where the naked mole-rats come in: their brains seem to stay healthy throughout life (they usually only die because another animal kills them in a fight).
“There’s very little evidence that naked mole-rats develop protein aggregates or get neurodegenerative diseases,” says Kumita. “By looking at what’s happening in their cells to prevent these diseases, we hope to find clues to what’s going wrong in human cells – and maybe we can recreate in humans whatever the naked mole-rats are doing.”