Nuclear receptor related 1 protein (or NURR1) is a protein that is critical to the development and survival of dopamine neurons – the cells in the brain that are affected in Parkinson’s disease.
Given the importance of this protein for the survival of these cells, a lot of research has been conducted on finding activators of NURR1.
In today’s post we will look at this research, discuss the results, and consider issues with regards to using these activators in Parkinson’s disease.
Comet Hale–Bopp. Source: Physics.smu.edu
Back in 1997, 10 days after Comet Hale–Bopp passed perihelion (April 1, 1997 – no joke; perihelion being the the point in the orbit of a comet when it is nearest to the sun) and just two days before golfer Tiger Woods won his first Masters Tournament, some researchers in Stockholm (Sweden) published the results of a study that would have a major impact on our understanding of how to keep dopamine neurons alive.
Dopamine neurons are one group of cells in the brain that are severely affected by Parkinson’s disease. By the time a person begins to exhibit the movement symptoms of the condition, they will have lost 40-60% of the dopamine neurons in a region called the substantia nigra. In the image below, there are two sections of brain – cut on a horizontal plane through the midbrain at the level of the substantia nigra – one displaying a normal compliment of dopamine neurons and the other from a person who passed away with Parkinson’s demonstrating a reduction in this cell population.
The dark pigmented dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra are reduced in the Parkinson’s disease brain (right). Source:Memorangapp
The researchers in Sweden had made an amazing discovery – they had identified a single gene that was critical to the survival of dopamine neurons. When they artificially mutated the section of DNA where this gene lives – an action which resulted in no protein for this gene being produced – they generated genetically engineered mice with no dopamine neurons:
Title: Dopamine neuron agenesis in Nurr1-deficient mice
Authors: Zetterström RH, Solomin L, Jansson L, Hoffer BJ, Olson L, Perlmann T.
Journal: Science. 1997 Apr 11;276(5310):248-50.
The researchers who conducted this study found that the mice with no NURR1 protein exhibited very little movement and did not survive long after birth. And this result was very quickly replicated by other research groups (Click here and here to see examples)
So what was this amazing gene called?
This week a group of scientists have published an article which indicates differences between mice and human beings, calling into question the use of these mice in Parkinson’s disease research.
The results could explain way mice do not get Parkinson’s disease, and they may also partly explain why humans do.
In today’s post we will outline the new research, discuss the results, and look at whether Levodopa treatment may (or may not) be a problem.
The humble lab mouse. Source: PBS
Much of our understanding of modern biology is derived from the “lower organisms”.
From yeast to snails (there is a post coming shortly on a snail model of Parkinson’s disease – I kid you not) and from flies to mice, a great deal of what we know about basic biology comes from experimentation on these creatures. So much in fact that many of our current ideas about neurodegenerative diseases result from modelling those conditions in these creatures.
Now say what you like about the ethics and morality of this approach, these organisms have been useful until now. And I say ‘until now’ because an interesting research report was released this week which may call into question much of the knowledge we have from the modelling of Parkinson’s disease is these creatures.
You see, here’s the thing: Flies don’t naturally develop Parkinson’s disease.
Nor do mice. Or snails.
Or yeast for that matter.
So we are forcing a very un-natural state upon the biology of these creatures and then studying the response/effect. Which could be giving us strange results that don’t necessarily apply to human beings. And this may explain our long history of failed clinical trials.
We work with the best tools we have, but it those tools are flawed…
What did the new research report find?
This is the study:
Title: Dopamine oxidation mediates mitochondrial and lysosomal dysfunction in Parkinson’s disease
Authors: Burbulla LF, Song P, Mazzulli JR, Zampese E, Wong YC, Jeon S, Santos DP, Blanz J, Obermaier CD, Strojny C, Savas JN, Kiskinis E, Zhuang X, Krüger R, Surmeier DJ, Krainc D
Journal: Science, 07 Sept 2017 – Early online publication
The researchers who conducted this study began by growing dopamine neurons – a type of cell badly affected by Parkinson’s disease – from induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells.
What are induced pluripotent stem cells?
This week a biotech company called Voyager Therapeutics announced the results of their ongoing phase Ib clinical trial. The trial is investigating a gene therapy approach for people with severe Parkinson’s disease.
Gene therapy is a technique that involves inserting new DNA into a cell using a virus. The DNA can help the cell to produce beneficial proteins that go on help to alleviate the motor features of Parkinson’s disease.
In today’s post we will discuss gene therapy, review the new results and consider what they mean for the Parkinson’s community.
On 25th August 2012, the Voyager 1 space craft became the first human-made object to exit our solar system.
After 35 years and 11 billion miles of travel, this explorer has finally left the heliosphere (which encompasses our solar system) and it has crossed into the a region of space called the heliosheath – the boundary area that separates our solar system from interstellar space. Next stop on the journey of Voyager 1 will be the Oort cloud, which it will reach in approximately 300 years and it will take the tiny craft about 30,000 years to pass through it.
Where is Voyager 1? Source: Tampabay
Where is Voyager actually going? Well, eventually it will pass within 1 light year of a star called AC +79 3888 (also known as Gliese 445), which lies 17.6 light-years from Earth. It will achieve this goal on a Tuesday afternoon in 40,000 years time.
Gliese 445 (circled). Source: Wikipedia
Remarkably, the Gliese 445 star itself is actually coming towards us. Rather rapidly as well. It is approaching with a current velocity of 119 km/sec – nearly 7 times as fast as Voyager 1 is travelling towards it (the current speed of the craft is 38,000 mph (61,000 km/h).
Interesting, but what does any of that have to do with Parkinson’s disease?
Well closer to home, another ‘Voyager’ is also ‘going boldly where no man has gone before’ (sort of).
In this post I review recently published research describing interesting new gene therapy tools.
“Gene therapy” involved using genetics, rather than medication to treat conditions like Parkinson’s disease. By replacing faulty sections of DNA (or genes) or providing supportive genes, doctors hope to better treat certain diseases.
While we have ample knowledge regarding how to correct or insert genes effectively, the problem has always been delivery: getting the new DNA into the right types of cells while avoiding all of the other cells.
Now, researchers at the California Institute of Technology may be on the verge of solving this issue with specially engineered viruses.
Gene therapy. Source: yourgenome
When you get sick, the usual solution is to visit your doctor. They will prescribe a medication for you to take, and then all things going well (fingers crossed/knock on wood) you will start to feel better. It is a rather simple and straight forward process, and it has largely worked well for most of us for quite some time.
As the overall population has started to live longer, however, we have become more and more exposed to chronic conditions which require long-term treatment regimes. The “long-term” aspect of this means that some people are regularly taking medication as part of their daily lives. In many cases, these medications are taken multiple times per day.
An example of this is Levodopa (also known as Sinemet or Madopar) which is the most common treatment for the chronic condition of Parkinson’s disease. When you swallow your Levodopa pill, it is broken down in the gut, absorbed through the wall of the intestines, transported to the brain via our blood system, where it is converted into the chemical dopamine – the chemical that is lost in Parkinson’s disease. This conversion of Levodopa increases the levels of dopamine in your brain, which helps to alleviate the motor issues associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Levodopa. Source: Drugs
This pill form of treating a disease is only a temporary solution though. People with Parkinson’s disease – like other chronic conditions – need to take multiple tablets of Levodopa every day to keep their motor features under control. And long term this approach can result in other complications, such as Levodopa-induced dyskinesias in the case of Parkinson’s.
Yeah, but is there a better approach?
Some researchers believe there is. But we are not quite there yet with the application of that approach. Let me explain:
In December, we highlighted the results of a phase 1 clinical trial for Parkinson’s disease being run by a company called Voyager Therapeutics (Click here for that post). In that post we also explained that the company is attempting to take a gene therapy product (VY-AADC01) to the clinic.
VY-AADC01 is a virus that is injected into a particular part of the brain (called the putamen), where it infects cells in that area and causes them to produce a lot of a particular protein, called Aromatic L-amino acid decarboxylase (or AADC). AADC is required for turning L-dopa (one of the primary treatments for Parkinson’s disease) into dopamine – which helps to ease the motor features of the condition.
Today, while most people were focused on President Trump’s inauguration, Voyager Therapeutics provided an update on their ongoing trials. Specifically, the company reported an increase in viral infection coverage of the putamen was achieved by VY-AADC01 in their third group (‘cohort’) of subjects. They infected 42% of the putamen compared to 34% in group 2 and 21% in group 1.
In the press release, the company stated:
“The five patients enrolled in Cohort 3 received similar infusion volumes of VY-AADC01 compared to Cohort 2 (up to 900 µL per putamen), but three-fold higher vector genome concentrations, representing up to a three-fold higher total dose of up to 4.5×1012 vector genomes (vg) of VY-AADC01 compared to patients in Cohort 2 (1.5 × 1012 vg). Patients enrolled in Cohort 3 were similar in baseline characteristics to Cohort 1 and 2. The use of real-time, intra-operative MRI-guided delivery allowed the surgical teams to visualize the delivery of VY-AADC01 and continue to achieve greater average coverage of the putamen in Cohort 3 (42%) compared to Cohort 2 (34%) with similar infusion volumes and Cohort 1 (21%) with a lower infusion volume (Figure 1). The surgical procedure was successfully completed in all five patients. Infusions of VY-AADC01 have been well-tolerated with no vector-related serious adverse events (SAEs) or surgical complications in Cohort 3, and all five patients were discharged from the hospital within two days following surgery. The Phase 1b trial remains on track to deliver six-month safety, motor function, and biomarker data from Cohort 3, as well as longer-term safety and motor function data from Cohorts 1 and 2, in mid-2017.”
This update demonstrates that the company is proceeding with increased concentrations of their virus, resulting in a wider area of the putamen being infected and producing AADC. Whether this increased area of AADC producing cells results in significant improvements to motor features of Parkinson’s disease, we shall hopefully begin to find out later this year.
As always, watch this space.
Exciting new last week from a small biotech company called Voyager Therapeutics which is using gene therapy to treat neurodegenerative disease. Their primary product (VY-AADC01) is focused on Parkinson’s disease and the initial results look very positive.
The press release has indicates that the treatment is well tolerated and has beneficial effects on the subject’s motor functions. This last part is very interesting as the trial is being conducted on people with advanced Parkinson’s disease.
In today’s post, we’ll review the technology and what the results mean.
Gene therapy. Source: HuffingtonPost
In Parkinson’s disease, we often talk about the loss of the dopamine neurons in the midbrain as a cardinal feature of the disease. When people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, they have usually lost approximately 50-60% of the dopamine neurons in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra.
The dark pigmented dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra are reduced in the Parkinson’s disease brain (right). Source: Memorangapp
The midbrain is – as the label suggests – in the middle of the brain, just above the brainstem (see image below). The substantia nigra dopamine neurons reside there.
Location of the substantia nigra in the midbrain. Source: Memorylossonline
The dopamine neurons of the substantia nigra generate dopamine and release that chemical in different areas of the brain. The primary regions of that release are areas of the brain called the putamen and the Caudate nucleus. The dopamine neurons of the substantia nigra have long projections (or axons) that extend a long way across the brain to the putamen and caudate nucleus, so that dopamine can be released there.
The projections of the substantia nigra dopamine neurons. Source: MyBrainNotes
In Parkinson’s disease, these ‘axon’ extensions that project to the putamen and caudate nucleus gradually disappear as the dopamine neurons of the substantia nigra are lost. When one looks at brain sections of the putamen after the axons have been labelled with a dark staining technique, this reduction in axons is very apparent over time, especially when compared to a healthy control brain.
The putamen in Parkinson’s disease (across time). Source: Brain
Previously we have discussed replacing the loss dopamine by transplanting dopamine producing cells into the putamen (click here to read that post), but some researchers now believe that this is not necessary. Instead they have proposed using gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease.
What is gene therapy?
The gene therapy involves inducing cells to produce proteins that they usually do not. This is usually done using genetically modified viruses which have had all the disease causing component removed, allowing us to use the virus as an efficient delivery system. Viruses by their very nature are very good at infecting cells, so if we remove the disease causing components, what is left is a very effective delivery system. Taking this approach one step further, we could next take genes involved with dopamine synthesis and insert them into our empty virus. By then injecting this virus into the brain, we could produce dopamine in any infected cells (it’s slightly more complicated than that, but you get the basic idea).
Gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease. Source: Wiki.Epfl
This approach demonstrated amazing results in preclinical studies in the lab, but the transition to the clinic has not been easy (click here for a good review of the field).
What has been done in the clinic for gene therapy and Parkinson’s disease?
The first clinical attempt at gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease involved injecting a virus containing a gene called glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD), which is an enzyme involved in the production of a chemical called GABA. The virus was injected into an area of the brain called the subthalamic nucleus, which becomes over-active in Parkinson’s disease. By ectopically producing GAD in the subthalamic nucleus, researchers were able to reduce the level of activity (this is similar to deep brain stimulation in Parkinson’s disease which modulates the activity of the subthalamic nucleus). The clinical trials for GAD produced modest results. The virus was well tolerated, but the clinical effect was limited.
Another clinical trial attempted to cause cells in the putamen to produce a chemical called neurturin (which is very similar to GDNF – we have previously written about GDNF, click here to read that post). The goal of the study was to prove neuroprotection and regeneration to the remaining dopamine neurons, by releasing neurturin in the putamen. Subjects were injected in the putamen with the virus and then the participants were followed for 15 months. Unfortunately, this study failed to demonstrate any meaningful improvement in subjects with Parkinson’s disease.
So what were the results of the trial?
Voyager Therapeutics‘s gene therapy product, VY-AADC01 is an adeno associated virus that carries a gene called Aromatic L-amino acid decarboxylase (or AADC).
AAV Viruses. Source: HuffingtonPost
Yeah, I know: what is AADC?
AADC is the enzyme that converts L-dopa into dopamine. L-dopa can be naturally produced in the brain from Tyrosine that is absorbed from the blood. It is also the basic component of many treatments for Parkinson’s disease.
The production of dopamine. Source: Slideplayer
By injecting VY-AADC01 into the putamen of people with advanced Parkinson’s disease, Voyager is hoping to alleviate the motor features of the condition by allowing the brain to produce a constant supply of dopamine in the exact location that is missing the dopamine (remember, the putamen is where dopamine is released). This approach will not cure the disease, but it may make life a lot easier for those affected by it.
The phase 1b clinical trial was designed to assess whether the virus had any negative side effects in humans. After the subjects were injected in the brain with VY-AADC01, they were assessed at six and twelve months after the surgery. The results suggest that the virus was well tolerated and resulted in increased AADC enzyme activity, enhanced response to L-dopa treatment, and clinically meaningful improvements in various measures of patients’ motor function (44% improvement in ‘off medication’ measures and 55% improvement in ‘on medication’ measures).
The company currently has 2 groups of subjects injected with the virus (two different concentrations) and they are looking to have a third group injected in early 2017. Phase 2 trials are planned to begin in late 2017.
What does it all mean?
They are also interesting results because the subjects involved in the study all have advanced Parkinson’s disease (the average time since diagnosis in the subject was 10 years). So it is very positive news to see beneficial effects in later stage subjects.
Our ability to delivery of genes to different locations is a symbol of how far we have come with our understanding of biology. The fact that this knowledge is now having a positive impact in the medical world is very exciting. Gene therapy is one treatment approach that we here at SoPD are very excited about and watching very closely.
The banner for today’s post was sourced from Voyager Therapeutics