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Scope 63 - Powering the brain with Mitochondria

7 August 2017

Five years ago, Professor Mike Berridge and his colleagues pointed their research focus to mitochondrial transfer between cells to explain unexpected results. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of cells, producing much of the energy required for maintenance and function. These organelles possess their own DNA and in their absence, many types of cells perish.

Previously in cell biology, it had been widely accepted that genes do not transfer between cells. This was overturned by Prof Berridge and his group, who showed mitochondria moving to tumour cells that did not possess mitochondrial DNA. This breakthrough sparked an array of questions about mitochondrial transfer in health and disease and continues to be a major focus of Prof Berridge’s work today.

The current challenge is deconstructing mitochondrial transfer in the brain. Nearly all neurological diseases present altered bioenergetics involving mitochondria. To understand these diseases, we must understand how mitochondria and cells behave in the brain. Prof Berridge’s group use a glioblastoma brain tumour model without mitochondrial DNA to observe mitochondrial transfer from surrounding cells. They aim to identify the donor cells and the signals involved. With this knowledge, Prof Berridge theorizes that techniques could be developed to prevent transfer, halt tumour growth and address many neurological diseases.

Exploring mitochondrial transfer will not only help us understand cancer cell biology, but also, normal cell biology. “If this function has been retained throughout evolution, there must be a significant reason,” contemplates Prof Berridge. We are only scratching the surface of where this promising area of research could lead. Scientists across the globe have expressed interest in collaboration, opening up opportunities to combine knowledge and resources. Unpacking the intricacies of brain bioenergetics could ultimately help us combat neurological dysfunction.