Development of improved substrates for live cell imaging to aid in discovering new glucocerebrosidase therapeutic agents

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects millions of people worldwide, with no standard treatment currently available. Therefore, there is a major need for new therapeutic agents to treat or prevent the progression of PD. One promising solution involves targeting the protein glucocerebrosidase (GCase) encoded by the gene GBA1. Studies have shown small molecules that increase GCase activity could help prevent the progression of PD.

Dr. Ashmus will use a combination of organic chemistry, chemical biology, and cell biology to discover new therapeutic agents that increase GCase activity. Fluorescently-quenched substrates will be chemically synthesized and used in enzymatic assays to monitor GCase activity in vitro and in neuroblastoma cells. The assay will then be adapted and optimized for use in a high-throughput screen of compounds from the Canadian Glycomics Network and from a natural products collaborator, Roger Linington, at SFU.

The results of this research could produce new lead compounds that increase GCase activity. In addition, the compound screen could aid in identifying new therapeutic targets for PD, which would drive preclinical translation research in this area.

End of Award Update – March 2022

Most exciting outputs

An exciting and successful specific output as part of the project was that we were able to develop a newly designed probe that performs better than the original probe the Vocadlo Lab published and patented back in 2015. The new probe is also capable of being used in a high-throughput screening in live cells. Moreover, the new design led to the development of probes that could for the first-time target other disease-related enzymes of interest in live cells and led to a high-impact publication in Nature Chemical Biology.

Impacts so far

While the main purpose of the research project failed to discover any lead compounds that could be developed as a potential therapeutic agent for Gaucher/Parkinson’s disease, the steps (develop a better probe and optimize use for screening) required to reach the point of running the screen were successful. The data collected (unpublished) has helped secure funding for the Vocadlo Lab and led to collaborations with biotech companies interested in targeting the same enzyme.

Potential future influence

I think some of the work described briefly will start to gain more attention in the next few years. Over the past year or so, I have noticed an increased interest from research institutes and biotech companies in studying enzymes found within the lysosome. This is in part because more of these lysosomal enzymes are being linked to neurological diseases so having biochemical tools that can study them in live cells will be desired. I think some of the probes we have developed over the past couple of years will be of interest to a broader scientific community.

Next steps

The work searching for potential therapeutic agents for Gaucher/Parkinson’s disease is currently ongoing. The majority of my research efforts have shifted to developing and evaluating novel probes targeting other disease-related enzymes. One notable example is a new project collaborating with an expert clinician in Fabry’s Disease. Using one of our recently developed probes, we aim to advance current diagnostic methods and improve dosing and timing of current therapeutics for Fabry Disease patients. I am excited to see some of my work being used in a clinical setting and hope this can lead to something more fruitful in time. Dissemination of the work will be continued through publications, presentations at conferences and through social media platforms.

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