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Research breakthrough in movement disorders,mental illness

22 May, 2007

A Monash research team co-led by Professor James Whisstock and Associate Professor Merrill Rowley has solved the structure of two key proteins that function to control human movement and neural transmission.

In a paper published in the April edition of the prestigious journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, the biologists detail the atomic structure of both forms of the neural enzyme glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD). GAD produces a crucial neurotransmitter called GABA, which controls neuronal signalling, movement and tissue development.

The research describes how the two forms of the GAD function together to control levels of GABA.

Insufficient levels of GAD and GABA may contribute to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and movement disorders such as cerebral palsy. GAD has also been successfully used in animal models to alleviate the symptoms of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease.

The research, funded primarily by the NHMRC, is the result of 20 years of GAD-related research at Monash.

"This is an important medical breakthrough. We hope to now harness our knowledge of how GAD works to drive the design of new therapeutics" Professor Whisstock said.

Synchrotron radiation, together with high performance computing, was key to the project's success, and members of the team had to travel several times to the USA to use the Chicago synchrotron.

The discovery comes as the Australian synchrotron comes online, and at a time that Monash is heavily developing its structural biology facilities.

"Monash University recently invested $5 million to allow a major upgrade to our structural biology facilities - these new facilities will really be world leading, and will dramatically accelerate the pace of our research," Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Research) Professor Edwina Cornish said.