In 2018, there is one particular clinical trial that I will be watching, because the drug being tested could have a big impact on certain kinds of Parkinson’s.
The clinical trial is focused on people with cancer and they will be treated with a drug called TVB-2640. TVB-2640 is an inhibitor of an enzyme called fatty acid synthase (or FAS).
In today’s post we will discuss why TVB-2640 might be a useful treatment for certain kinds of Parkinson’s.
Mitochondria and their location in the cell. Source: NCBI
Regular readers of this blog are probably getting sick of the picture above.
I use it regularly on this website, because a.) it nicely displays a basic schematic of a mitochondrion (singular), and where mitochondria (plural) reside inside a cell. And b.) a lot of evidence is pointing towards mitochondrial dysfunction in Parkinson’s.
What are mitochondria?
Mitochondria are the power stations of each cell. They help to keep the lights on. Without them, the party is over and the cell dies.
How do they supply the cell with energy?
They convert nutrients from food into Adenosine Triphosphate (or ATP). ATP is the fuel which cells run on. Given their critical role in energy supply, mitochondria are plentiful (some cells have thousands) and highly organised within the cell, being moved around to wherever they are needed.
What does this have to do with Parkinson’s?
Last week, as everyone was preparing for Christmas celebrations, researchers at the pharmaceutic company Novartis published new research on a gene that is involved with Parkinson’s, called PARKIN (or PARK2).
They used a new gene editing technology – called CRISPR – to conduct a large screening study to identify proteins that are involved with the activation of PARKIN.
In today’s post we will look at what PARKIN does, review the research report, and discuss how these results could be very beneficial for the Parkinson’s community.
As many people within the Parkinson’s community will be aware, 2017 represented the 200th anniversary of the first report of Parkinson’s disease by James Parkinson.
It also the 20th anniversary of the discovery of first genetic mutation (or variant) that increases the risk of developing Parkinson’s. That genetic variation occurs in a region of DNA (a gene) called ‘alpha synuclein’. Yes, that same alpha synuclein that seems to play such a critical role in Parkinson’s (Click here to read more about the 20th anniversary).
In 2018, we will be observing the 20th anniversary of the second genetic variation associated with Parkinson.
That gene is called PARKIN:
Title: Mutations in the parkin gene cause autosomal recessive juvenile parkinsonism.
Authors: Kitada T, Asakawa S, Hattori N, Matsumine H, Yamamura Y, Minoshima S, Yokochi M, Mizuno Y, Shimizu N
Journal: Nature. 1998 Apr 9; 392(6676):605-8
In 1998, Japanese researchers published this report based on 5 individuals from 4 Japanese families who were affected by juvenile-onset Parkinson’s. In family 1, the affected individual was a female, 43 years old, born of first-cousin parents, and her two younger brothers are healthy. Her condition was diagnosed in her teens and it had then progressed very slowly afterwards. Her response to L-dopa was very positive, but L-dopa-induced dyskinesia were frequent. In family 2-4, affected individuals (born to unrelated parents) exhibited very similar clinical features to the subject in family 1. The age of onset was between 18 to 27 years of age.
Using previous research and various techniques the investigators were able to isolate genetic variations that were shared between the 5 affected individuals. They ultimately narrowed down their search to a section of DNA containing 2,960 base pairs, which encoded a protein of 465 amino acids.
They decided to call that protein PARKIN.
PARKIN Protein. Source: Wikipedia
How much of Parkinson’s is genetic?
In Silicon valley (California), everyone is always looking for the “next killer app” – the piece of software (or application) that is going to change the world. The revolutionary next step that will solve all of our problems.
The title of today’s post is a play on the words ‘killer app’, but the ‘app’ part doesn’t refer to the word application. Rather it relates to the Alzheimer’s disease-related protein Amyloid Precursor Protein (or APP). Recently new research has been published suggesting that APP is interacting with a Parkinson’s disease-related protein called Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (or LRRK2).
The outcome of that interaction can have negative consequences though.
In today’s post we will discuss what is known about both proteins, what the new research suggests and what it could mean for Parkinson’s disease.
Seattle. Source: Thousandwonders
In the mid 1980’s James Leverenz and Mark Sumi of the University of Washington School of Medicine (Seattle) made a curious observation.
After noting the high number of people with Alzheimer’s disease that often displayed some of the clinical features of Parkinson’s disease, they decided to examined the postmortem brains of 40 people who had passed away with pathologically confirmed Alzheimer’s disease – that is, an analysis of their brains confirmed that they had Alzheimer’s.
What the two researchers found shocked them:
Title: Parkinson’s disease in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Authors: Leverenz J, Sumi SM.
Journal: Arch Neurol. 1986 Jul;43(7):662-4.
Of the 40 Alzheimer’s disease brains that they looked at nearly half of them (18 cases) had either dopamine cell loss or Lewy bodies – the characteristic features of Parkinsonian brain – in a region called the substantia nigra (where the dopamine neurons are located). They next went back and reviewed the clinical records of these cases and found that rigidity, with or without tremor, had been reported in 13 of those patients. According to their analysis 11 of those patients had the pathologic changes that warranted a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
And the most surprising aspect of this research report: Almost all of the follow up studies, conducted by independent investigators found exactly the same thing!
It is now generally agreed by neuropathologists (the folks who analyse sections of brain for a living) that 20% to 50% of cases of Alzheimer’s disease have the characteristic round, cellular inclusions that we call Lewy bodies which are typically associated with Parkinson disease. In fact, in one analysis of 145 Alzheimer’s brains, 88 (that is 60%!) had chemically verified Lewy bodies (Click here to read more about that study).
A lewy body (brown with a black arrow) inside a cell. Source: Cure Dementia
Oh, and if you are wondering whether this is just a one way street, the answer is “No sir, this phenomenon works both ways”: the features of the Alzheimer’s brain (such as the clustering of a protein called beta-amyloid) are also found in many cases of pathologically confirmed Parkinson’s disease (Click here and here to read more about this).
So what are you saying? Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are the same thing???
In October 2015, researchers from Georgetown University announced the results of a small clinical trial that got the Parkinson’s community very excited. The study involved a cancer drug called Nilotinib, and the results were rather spectacular.
What happened next, however, was a bizarre sequence of disagreements over exactly what should happen next and who should be taking the drug forward. This caused delays to subsequent clinical trials and confusion for the entire Parkinson’s community who were so keenly awaiting fresh news about the drug.
Earlier this year, Georgetown University announced their own follow up phase II clinical trial and this week a second phase II clinical trial funded by a group led by the Michael J Fox foundation was initiated.
In todays post we will look at what Nilotinib is, how it apparently works for Parkinson’s disease, what is planned with the new trial, and how it differs from the ongoing Georgetown Phase II trial.
The FDA. Source: Vaporb2b
This week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given approval for a multi-centre, double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled Phase IIa clinical trial to be conducted, testing the safety and tolerability of Nilotinib (Tasigna) in Parkinson’s disease.
This is exciting and welcomed news.
What is Nilotinib?
Nilotinib (pronounced ‘nil-ot-in-ib’ and also known by its brand name Tasigna) is a small-molecule tyrosine kinase inhibitor, that has been approved for the treatment of imatinib-resistant chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).
What does any that mean?
Basically, it is the drug that is used to treat a type of blood cancer (leukemia) when the other drugs have failed. It was approved for treating this cancer by the FDA in 2007.
In today’s post we will review recent research regarding one particular family of bacteria, Helicobacter pylori, and what they might be doing in relations to Parkinson’s disease.
In his magnificent book, I contain multitudes, science writer/journalist Ed Yong writes that we – every single one of us – release approximately 37 million bacteria per hour. By talking, breathing, touching, or simply being present in the world, we are losing and also picking up the little passengers everywhere we go.
Reminds me of that Pascal Mercier book “Night Train to Lisbon” – We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place,… I’m not sure if this is what he was referring to though.
Yong also points out that: 80% of the bacteria on your right thumb are different to the bacteria on your left thumb.
It’s a fascinating book (and no, I am not receiving any royalties for saying that).
Microbes. Source: NYmag
We have discussed microbes several times on this blog, particularly in the context of the gut and its connection to Parkinson’s disease (Click here, here and here to read some of those posts). Today we are going to re-visit one particular type of microbe that we have also discussed in a previous post: Helicobacter pylori.
Helicobacter pylori. Source: Helico
Two months ago a research report was published in the scientific journal ‘Nature’ and it caused a bit of a fuss in the embryonic stem cell world.
Embryonic stem (ES) cells are currently being pushed towards the clinic as a possible source of cells for regenerative medicine. But this new report suggested that quite a few of the embryonic stem cells being tested may be carrying genetic variations that could be bad. Bad as in cancer bad.
In this post, I will review the study and discuss what it means for cell transplantation therapy for Parkinson’s disease.
For folks in the stem cell field, the absolute go-to source for all things stem cell related is Prof Paul Knoepfler‘s blog “The Niche“. From the latest scientific research to exciting new stem cell biotech ventures (and even all of the regulatory changes being proposed in congress), Paul’s blog is a daily must read for anyone serious about stem cell research. He has his finger on the pulse and takes the whole field very, very seriously.
For a long time now, Paul has been on a personal crusade. Like many others in the field (including yours truly), he has been expressing concern about the unsavoury practices of the growing direct-to-consumer, stem cell clinic industry. You may have seen him mentioned in the media regarding this topic (such as this article).
The real concern is that while much of the field is still experimental, many stem cell clinics are making grossly unsubstantiated claims to draw in customers. From exaggerated levels of successful outcomes (100% satisfaction rate?) all the way through to talking about clinical trials that simply do not exist. The industry is badly (read: barely) regulated which is ultimately putting patients at risk (one example: three patients were left blind after undergoing an unproven stem cell treatment – click here to read more on this).
While the stem cell research field fully understands and appreciates the desperate desire of the communities affected by various degenerative conditions, there has to be regulations and strict control standards that all practitioners must abide by. And first amongst any proposed standards should be that the therapy has been proven to be effective for a particular condition in independently audited double blind, placebo controlled trials. Until such proof is provided, the sellers of such products are simply preying on the desperation of the people seeking these types of procedures.
A build up of a protein called alpha synuclein inside neurons is one of the characteristic feature of the Parkinsonian brain. This protein is believed to be partly responsible for the loss of dopamine neurons in this condition.
A similar build up of alpha synuclein is also seen in the deadly skin cancer, Melanoma… but those cells don’t die (?!?)… in fact, they just keep on dividing.
Why is there this critical difference?
In today’s post we look at an interesting new study that may have solved this mystery.
A melanoma. Source: Huffington Post
Parkinson’s disease has a very strange relationship with the skin cancer melanoma.
As we have stated in previous posts (Click here, here, here and here to read those posts) people with Parkinson’s disease are 2-8 times more likely to develop melanoma than people without Parkinson’s (And this finding has been replicated a few times: Olsen et al, 2005; Olsen et al, 2006; Driver et al 2007; Gao et al 2009; Lo et al 2010; Bertoni et al 2010;Schwid et al 2010; Ferreira et al, 2010; Inzelberg et al, 2011; Liu et al 2011; Kareus et al 2012; Wirdefeldt et al 2014; Catalá-López et al 2014; Constantinescu et al 2014; Ong et al 2014).
The truly baffling detail in this story, however, is that this relationship is reciprocal – if you have melanoma you are almost 3 times more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than someone without melanoma (Source: Baade et al 2007; Gao et al 2009).
What is melanoma exactly?
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer.
It develops from the pigment-containing cells known as melanocytes. Melanocytes are melanin-producing cells located in the bottom layer (the stratum basale) of the skin’s outer layer (or epidermis).
The location of melanocytes in the skin. Source: Wikipedia
Melanocytes produce melanin, which is a pigment found in the skin, eyes, and hair. It is also found in the brain in certain types of cells, such as dopamine neurons (where it is referred to as neuromelanin).
Neuromelanin (brown) in dopamine neurons. Source: Schatz
Melanomas are usually caused by DNA damage resulting from exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds increases the risk of melanoma (Source), as does excessive air travel (Source), or simply spending to much time sun bathing.
Approximately 2.2% of men and women will be diagnosed with melanoma at some point during their lives (Source). In women, melanomas most commonly occur on the legs, while in men they are most common on the back. Melanoma makes up 5% of all cancers (Source).
Generally, melanomas is one of the safer cancers, as it can usually be detected early by visual inspection. This cancer is made dangerous, however, by its ability to metastasise (or spread to other organs in the body).
The stages of melanoma. Source: Pathophys
Are there any genetic associations between Parkinson’s disease and melanoma?
When the common genetics mutations that increase the risk of both conditions were previously analysed, it was apparent that none of the known Parkinson’s mutations make someone more susceptible to melanoma, and likewise none of the melanoma-associated genetic mutations make a person vulnerable to Parkinson’s disease (Meng et al 2012;Dong et al 2014; Elincx-Benizri et al 2014).
In fact, researchers have only found very weak genetic connections between two conditions (Click here to read our previous post on this). It’s a real mystery.
Are there any other connections between Parkinson’s disease and melanoma?
Another shared feature of both Parkinson’s disease and melanoma is the build up of a protein called alpha synuclein. Alpha synuclein is believed to be one of the villains in Parkinson’s disease – building up inside a cell, becoming toxic, and eventually killing that cell.
But recently researchers noticed that melanoma also has a build up of alpha synuclein, but those cells don’t die:
Title: Parkinson’s disease-related protein, alpha-synuclein, in malignant melanoma
Authors: Matsuo Y, Kamitani T.
Journal: PLoS One. 2010 May 5;5(5):e10481.
PMID: 20463956 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
In this study, researchers from Japan found that alpha synuclein was detected in 86% of the primary and 85% of the metastatic melanoma. Understand that the protein is not detectable in the non-melanoma cancer cells.
So what is it doing in melanoma cells?
Recently, researchers from Germany believe that they have found the answer to this question:
Title: Treatment with diphenyl-pyrazole compound anle138b/c reveals that α-synuclein protects melanoma cells from autophagic cell death
Authors: Turriani E, Lázaro DF, Ryazanov S, Leonov A, Giese A, Schön M, Schön MP, Griesinger C, Outeiro TF, Arndt-Jovin DJ, Becker D
Journal: Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Jun 5. pii: 201700200. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1700200114
In their study, the German researchers looked at levels of alpha synuclein in melanoma cells. They took the melanoma cells that produced the most alpha synuclein and treated those cells with a chemical that inhibits the toxic form of alpha synuclein (which results from the accumulation of the protein).
What they observed next was fascinating: the cell morphology (or physically) changed, leading to massive melanoma cell death. The investigators found that this cell death was caused by instability of mitochondria and a major dysfunction in the autophagy process.
Mitochondria, you may recall, are the power house of each cell. They keep the lights on. Without them, the lights go out and the cell dies.
Mitochondria and their location in the cell. Source: NCBI
Autophagy is the garbage disposal/recycling process within each cell, which is an absolutely essential function. Without autophagy, old proteins and mitochondria will pile up making the cell sick and eventually it dies. Through the process of autophagy, the cell can break down the old protein, clearing the way for fresh new proteins to do their job.
The process of autophagy. Source: Wormbook
Waste material inside a cell is collected in membranes that form sacs (called vesicles). These vesicles then bind to another sac (called a lysosome) which contains enzymes that will breakdown and degrade the waste material. The degraded waste material can then be recycled or disposed of by spitting it out of the cell.
What the German research have found is that the high levels of alpha synuclein keep the mitochondria stable and the autophagy process working at a level that helps to keeps the cancer cell alive.
Next, they replicated this cell culture research in mice with melanoma tumors. When the mice were treated with the chemical that inhibits the toxic form of alpha synuclein, the cancer cancer became malformed and the autophagy process was blocked.
The researchers concluded that “alpha synuclein, which in PD exerts severe toxic functions, promotes and thereby is highly beneficial to the survival of melanoma in its advanced stages”.
So what does all of this mean for Parkinson’s disease?
Well, this is where the story gets really interesting.
You may be pleased to know that the chemical (called Anle138b) which was used to inhibit the toxic form of alpha synuclein in the melanoma cells, also works in models of Parkinson’s disease:
Title: Anle138b: a novel oligomer modulator for disease-modifying therapy of neurodegenerative diseases such as prion and Parkinson’s disease.
Authors: Wagner J, Ryazanov S, Leonov A, Levin J, Shi S, Schmidt F, Prix C, Pan-Montojo F, Bertsch U, Mitteregger-Kretzschmar G, Geissen M, Eiden M, Leidel F, Hirschberger T, Deeg AA, Krauth JJ, Zinth W, Tavan P, Pilger J, Zweckstetter M, Frank T, Bähr M, Weishaupt JH, Uhr M, Urlaub H, Teichmann U, Samwer M, Bötzel K, Groschup M, Kretzschmar H, Griesinger C, Giese A.
Journal: Acta Neuropathol. 2013 Jun;125(6):795-813
PMID: 23604588 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
In this first study the researchers discovered Anle138b by conducted a large screening study to identify for molecules that could inhibit the toxic form of alpha synuclein.
They next tested Anle138b in both cell culture and rodent models of Parkinson’s disease and found it to be neuroprotective and very good at inhibiting the toxic form of alpha synuclein. And the treatment looks to be very effective. In the image below you can see dark staining of toxic alpha synuclein in the left panel from the brain of an untreated mouse, but very little staining in the right panel from an Anle138b treated mouse.
Toxic form of alpha synuclein (dark staining). Source: Max-Planck
Importantly, Anle138b does not interfere with normal behaviour of alpha synuclein in the mice (such as production of the protein, correct functioning, and eventual degradation/disposal of the protein), but it does act as an inhibitor of alpha synuclein clustering or aggregation (the toxic form of the protein). In addition, the investigators found no toxic effects of Anle138b in any of their experiments even after long-term high-dose treatment (more than one year).
And in a follow up study, the drug was effective even if it was given after the disease model had started:
Title: The oligomer modulator anle138b inhibits disease progression in a Parkinson mouse model even with treatment started after disease onset
Authors: Levin J, Schmidt F, Boehm C, Prix C, Bötzel K, Ryazanov S, Leonov A, Griesinger C, Giese A.
Journal: Acta Neuropathol. 2014 May;127(5):779-80.
PMID: 24615514 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
During the first study, the researchers had started Anle138b treatment in the mouse model of Parkinson’s disease at a very young age. In this study, however, the investigators began treatment only as the symptoms were starting to show, and Anle138b was found to significantly improve the overall survival of the mice.
One particularly interesting aspect of Anle138b function in the brain is that it does not appear to change the level of the autophagy suggesting that the biological effects of treatment with Anle138b is cell-type–specific (Click here to read more about this). In cancer cells, it is having a different effect to that in brain cells. These differences in effect may also relate to disease conditions though, as Anle138b was not neuroprotective in a mouse model of Multiple System Atrophy (MSA; Click here to read more about this).
Is Anle138b being tested in the clinic?
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry (Göttingen) have spun off a company called MODAG GmbH that is looking to advance Anle138b to the clinic (Click here for the press release). The Michael J Fox Foundation are helping to fund more preclinical development of this treatment (Click here to read more about this).
We will be watching their progress with interest.
What does it all mean?
Summing up: There are many mysteries surrounding Parkinson’s disease, but some researchers from Germany may have just solved one of them and at the same time developed a potentially useful new treatment.
They have discovered that the Parkinson’s associated protein, alpha synuclein, which is produced in large amounts in the skin cancer melanoma, is actually playing an important role in keeping those cancer cells alive. By finding a molecule that can block the build up of alpha synuclein, they have not only found a treatment for melanoma, but also potentially one for Parkinson’s disease.
And given that both diseases are closely associated, this could be seen as a great step forward. Two birds with one stone as the saying goes.
The banner for today’s post was sourced from Wikipedia
Recently it has been announced that the Parkinson’s disease-associated gene PARK2 was found to be mutated in 1/3 of all types of tumours analysed in a particular study.
For people with PARK2 associated Parkinson’s disease this news has come as a disturbing shock and we have been contacted by several frightened readers asking for clarification.
In today’s post, we put the new research finding into context and discuss what it means for the people with PARK2-associated Parkinson’s disease.
The As, the Gs, the Ts, and the Cs. Source: Cavitt
The DNA in almost every cell of your body provides the template for making a human being.
All the necessary information is encoded in that amazing molecule. The basic foundations of that blueprint are the ‘nucleotides’ – which include the familiar A, C, T & Gs – that form pairs (called ‘base pairs’) and which then join together in long strings of DNA that we call ‘chromosomes’.
The basics of genetics. Source: CompoundChem
If DNA provides the template for making a human being, however, it is the small variations (or ‘mutations’) in our individual DNA that ultimately makes each of us unique. And these variations come in different flavours: some can simply be a single mismatched base pair (also called a point-mutation or single nucleotide variant), while others are more complicated such as repeating copies of multiple base pairs.
Lots of different types of genetic variations. Source: Nature
Most of the genetic variants that define who we are, we have had since conception, passed down to us from our parents. These are called ‘germ line’ mutations. Other mutations, which we pick up during life and are usually specific to a particular tissue or organ in the body (such as the liver or blood), are called ‘somatic’ mutations.
Somatic vs germ line mutations. Source: AutismScienceFoundation
In the case of germ line mutations, there are several sorts. A variant that has to be provided by both the parents for a condition to develop, is called an ‘autosomal recessive‘ variant; while in other cases only one copy of the variant – provided by just one of the parents – is needed for a condition to appear. This is called an ‘autosomal dominant’ condition.
Autosomal dominant vs recessive. Source: Wikipedia
Many of these tiny genetic changes infer benefits, while other variants can result in changes that are of a more serious nature.
What does genetics have to do with Parkinson’s disease?
Approximately 15% of people with Parkinson disease have a family history of the condition – a grandfather, an aunt or cousin. For a long time researchers have noted this familial trend and suspected that genetics may play a role in the condition.
About 10-20% of Parkinson’s disease cases can be accounted for by genetic variations that infer a higher risk of developing the condition. In people with ‘juvenile-onset’ (diagnosed under the age 20) or ‘early-onset’ Parkinson’s disease (diagnosed under the age 40), genetic variations can account for the majority of cases, while in later onset cases (>40 years of age) the frequency of genetic variations is more variable.
For a very good review of the genetics of Parkinson’s disease – click here.
There are definitely regions of DNA in which genetic variations can increase one’s risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. These regions are referred to as ‘PARK genes’.
What are PARK genes?
We currently know of 23 regions of DNA that contain mutations associated with increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. As a result, these areas of the DNA have been given the name of ‘PARK genes’.
The region does not always refer to a particular gene, for example in the case of our old friend alpha synuclein, there are two PARK gene regions within the stretch of DNA that encodes alpha synuclein – that is to say, two PARK genes within the alpha synuclein gene. So please don’t think of each PARK genes as one particular gene.
There can also be multiple genetic variations within a PARK gene that can increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. The increased risk is not always the result of one particular mutation within a PARK gene region (Note: this is important to remember when considering the research report we will review below).
In addition, some of the mutations within a PARK gene can be associated with increased risk of other conditions in addition to Parkinson’s disease.
And this brings us to the research report that today’s post is focused on.
One of the PARK genes (PARK2) has recently been in the news because it was reported that mutations within PARK2 were found in 2/3 of the cancer tumours analysed in the study.
Here is the research report:
Title: PARK2 Depletion Connects Energy and Oxidative Stress to PI3K/Akt Activation via PTEN S-Nitrosylation
Authors: Gupta A, Anjomani-Virmouni S, Koundouros N, Dimitriadi M, Choo-Wing R, Valle A, Zheng Y, Chiu YH, Agnihotri S, Zadeh G, Asara JM, Anastasiou D, Arends MJ, Cantley LC, Poulogiannis G
Journal: Molecular Cell, (2017) 65, 6, 999–1013
PMID: 28306514 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
The investigators who conducted this study had previously found that mutations in the PARK2 gene could cause cancer in mice (Click here to read that report). To follow up this research, they decided to screen the DNA from a large number of tumours (more than 20,000 individual samples from at least 28 different types of tumours) for mutations within the PARK2 region.
Remarkably, they found that approximately 30% of the samples had PARK2 mutations!
In the case of lung adenocarcinomas, melanomas, bladder, ovarian, and pancreatic, more than 40% of the samples exhibited genetic variations related to PARK2. And other tumour samples had significantly reduced levels of PARK2 RNA. For example, two-thirds of glioma tumours had significantly reduced levels of PARK2 RNA.
Hang on a second, what is PARK2?
PARK2 is a region of DNA that has been associated with Parkinson’s disease. It lies on chromosome 6. You may recall from high school science class that a chromosomes is a section of our DNA, tightly wound up to make storage in cells a lot easier. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes.
Several genes fall within the PARK2 region, but most of them are none-protein-coding genes (meaning that they do not give rise to proteins). The PARK2 region does produce a protein, which is called Parkin.
The location of PARK2. Source: Atlasgeneticsoncology
Particular genetic variants within the PARK2 regions result in an autosomal recessive early-onset form of Parkinson disease (diagnosed before 40 years of age). One recent study suggested that as many as half of the people with early-onset Parkinson’s disease have a PARK2 variation.
Click here for a good review of PARK2-related Parkinson’s disease.
Ok, so if PARK2 was about Parkinson’s disease, what is it doing in cancer?
In Parkinson’s disease, Parkin – the protein of PARK2 – is involved with the removal/recycling of rubbish from the cell. But Parkin has also been found to have other functions. Of particular interest is the ability of Parkin to encourage dividing cells to…well, stop dividing. We do not see this function in neurons, because neurons do not divide. In rapidly dividing cells, however, Parkin can apparently stop the cells from dividing:
Title: Parkin induces G2/M cell cycle arrest in TNF-α-treated HeLa cells
Authors: Lee MH, Cho Y, Jung BC, Kim SH, Kang YW, Pan CH, Rhee KJ, Kim YS.
Journal: Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2015 Aug 14;464(1):63-9.
This discovery made researchers re-designate PARK2 as a ‘tumour suppressor‘ – a gene that encodes a protein which can block the development of tumours. Now, if there is a genetic variant within a tumour suppressor – such as PARK2 – that blocks it from stopping dividing cells, there is the possibility of the cells continuing to divide and developing into a tumour.
Without a properly functioning Parkin protein, rapidly dividing cells may just keep on dividing, encouraging the growth of a tumour.
Interestingly, the reintroduction of Parkin into cancer cells results in the death of those cells – click here to read more on this.
Oh no, I have a PARK2 mutation! Does this mean I am going to get cancer?
Let us be very clear: It does not mean you are ‘going to get cancer’.
And there are two good reasons why not:
Firstly, location, location, location – everything depends on where in the Parkin gene a mutation actually lies. There are 10 common mutations in the Parkin gene that can give rise to early-onset Parkinson’s disease, but only two of these are associated with an increased risk of cancer (they are R24P and R275W – red+black arrow heads in the image below – click here to read more about this).
Comparing PARK2 Cancer and PD associated mutations. Source: Nature
Parkin (PARK2) is one of the largest genes in humans (of the 24,000 protein encoding genes we have, only 18 are larger than Parkin). And while size does not really matter with regards to genetic mutations and cancer (the actual associated functions of a gene are more critical), given the size of Parkin it isn’t really surprising that it has a high number of trouble making mutations. But only two of the 13 cancer causing mutations are related to Parkinson’s.
Thus it is important to beware of exactly where your mutation is on the gene.
Second, in general, people with Parkinson’s disease actually have a 20-30% decreased risk of cancer (after you exclude melanoma, for which there is an significant increased risk and everyone in the community should be on the lookout for). There are approximately 140 genes that can promote or ‘drive’ tumour formation. But a typical tumour requires mutations in two to more of these “driver gene” for a tumour to actually develop. Thus a Parkin cancer-related mutation alone is very unlikely to cause cancer by itself.
So please relax.
The new research published this week is interesting, but it does not automatically mean people with a PARK2 mutation will get cancer.
What does it all mean?
So, summing up: Small variations in our DNA can play an important role in our risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Some of those Parkinson’s associated variations can also infer risk of developing other diseases, such as cancer.
Recently new research suggested that genetic variations in a Parkinson’s associated genetic region called PARK2 (or Parkin) are found in many forms of cancer. While the results of this research are very interesting, in isolation this information is not useful except in frightening people with PARK2 associated Parkinson’s disease. Cancers are very complex. The location of a mutation within a gene is important and generally more than cancer-related gene needs to be mutated before a tumour will develop.
The media needs to be more careful with how they disseminate this information from new research reports. People who are aware that they have a particular genetic variation will be sensitive to any new information related to that genetic region. They will only naturally take the news badly if it is not put into proper context.
So to the frightened PARK2 readers who contacted us requesting clarification, firstly: keep calm and carry on. Second, ask your physician about where exactly your PARK2 variation is exactly within the gene. If you require more information from that point on, we’ll be happy to help.
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It is with great frustration that we read today of the delayed start to the phase 2 clinical trial of the re-purposed cancer drug Nilotinib for Parkinson’s disease (click here for a story outlining the background, and click here for the Michael J Fox Foundation statement).
We have previously discussed both the preclinical and clinical research regarding Nilotinib and its use in Parkinson’s disease (click here and here for those posts). And the Parkinson’s community certainly got very excited about the findings of the small phase 1 unblinded clinical trial conducted by researchers at Georgetown University in 2015.
With the recent failure of the GDNF trial in Bristol, what the Parkinson’s community (both suffers and researchers alike) needs to do is refocus on moving ahead with exciting new projects, like Nilotinib. To hear that the follow-up trials for Nilotinib, however, will be delayed until 2017 (TWO YEARS after the initial results were announced) due to disagreements regarding the design of the study and who is seemingly in charge of the project, is both baffling and deeply disappointing.
Currently it appears that parties involved in the follow-up clinical trial have decided to go their separate ways, with the researchers at Georgetown University looking to conduct a single site phase 2 study of 75 subjects (if they can access the drug from supplier Novartis), while the Michael J Fox backed consortium will set up a multi-site phase 2 study.
We will continue to follow this situation as it develops and will report events as they happen.
We have previously discussed news briefings regarding a cancer drug that displayed interesting results in a pilot clinical study of Parkinson’s disease (click here to read that post). Today we will delve more deeply into the results of that particular study and consider what they mean.
Nilotinib (Tasigna) from Novartis. Source: William-Jon
In October of last year, at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago, a presentation of data from a clinical trial got the Parkinson’s community really excited. The study was investigating the effects of a cancer drug called ‘Nilotinib’ (also known as Tasigna) on Parkinson’s disease and the initial results were rather interesting.
The results of the pilot clinical study for Nilotinib were published today in the Journal of Parkinson’s disease:
Title: Nilotinib Effects in Parkinson’s disease and Dementia with Lewy bodies
Authors: Pagan F, Hebron M, Valadez E, Tores-Yaghi Y,Huang X, Mills R, Wilmarth B, Howard H, Dunn C, Carlson A, Lawler A, Rogers S, Falconer R, Ahn J, Li Z, & Moussa C.
Journal: Journal of Parkinson’s Disease, vol. Preprint
PMID: Yet to be allocated (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it).
The study was setup to determine safety of using Nilotinib in Parkinson’s disease dementia or dementia with Lewy bodies.
What is Nilotinib?
Nilotinib is a drug that can be used to treat a type of leukemia when the other cancer drugs have failed. It was approved for this treating cancer by the FDA in 2007.
The researchers behind the current study believe that Nilotinib works by turning on autophagy – the “garbage disposal machinery” inside brain cells. Autophagy is a process that clears waste and toxic proteins from inside cells, preventing them from accumulating and possibly causing the death of the cell.
The process of autophagy – Source: Wormbook
Waste material inside a cell is collected in membranes that form sacs (called vesicles). These vesicles then bind to another sac (called a lysosome) which contains enzymes that will breakdown and degrade the waste material.
The researchers suggest that Nilotinib may be working in Parkinson’s disease by helping affected cells to better clear away the build up of unnecessary proteins, which helps cells to function more efficiently.
What happened in the clinical study?
Twelve people with either Parkinson’s disease dementia or dementia with Lewy bodies were randomized given either 150 mg (n = 5) or 300 mg (n = 7) daily doses of Nilotinib for 24 weeks. After the treatment period the subjects were followed up for 12 weeks. All of the subjects were considered to have mid to late stage Parkinson’s features (Hoehn and Yahr stage 3–5). One subject was withdrawn from the study at week 4 due to a heart attack and another discontinued at 5 months due to unrelated circumstances.
An important question in the study was whether Nilotinib could actually enter the brain. Various tests conducted on the subjects suggesting that the drug had no problem crossing the ‘blood brain barrier‘ and having an effect in the brain. The levels of Nilotinib in the brain peaked at 2 hrs after taking the drug and the levels of the target protein (called p-Abl) were reduced by 30% at 1 hr. This level of activity remained stable for several hours.
The motor features of Parkinson’s disease were assessed using the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS) and the investigators observed an average decrease of 3.4 points and 3.6 points at six months (week 24) compared to the baseline measures (scores from the start of the study) with 150 mg and 300 mg Nilotinib, respectively. A decrease in motor scores represent a reduction in Parkinson’s motor features.
The really remarkable result, however, comes from the testing of cognitive performance, which was monitored with Mini Mental Status Examination (MMSE). The researchers report an average increase of 3.85 and 3.5 points in MMSE at six months (24-week) compared to baseline, for 150 mg and 300 mg of Nilotinib, respectively. This means that the mental processing of the subjects improved across the study.
The motor and cognitive results were complemented by measures of proteins in blood and cerebrospinal fluid samples taken from the subjects. The researchers saw increases in dopamine related proteins (suggesting that more dopamine was present in the brain) and stabilization of alpha synuclein levels.
The researchers concluded that these observations warrant a larger randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to truly evaluate the safety and efficacy of Nilotinib.
Here at the SoPD, we are inclined to agree.
So what does all this mean?
The results of the study are very interesting, and the researchers should be congratulated on the outcome (and presentation of all the data in the report). As they themselves acknowledge, the study was open labelled – meaning that everyone in the study knew that they were getting the treatment – so the placebo effect could be at play here.
One intriguing note in the report was that most of the participants in the study ‘experienced increased psychotic symptoms (hallucination, paranoia, agitation) and some dyskinesia whilst on Nilotinib’ suggesting an increase in dopamine levels in the brain.
Obviously a larger, double-blind study is required to determine whether the effect of the drug in Parkinson’s disease is real. The Michael J. Fox Foundation, the Van Andel Research Institute (Michigan, USA) and the Cure Parkinson’s Trust are collaborating on the development program for a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of nilotinib, which it is hoped will begin in 2017.
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