Gene therapy involves treating medical conditions at the level of DNA – that is, altering or enhancing the genetic code inside cells to provide therapeutic benefits rather than simply administering drugs. Usually this approach utilises specially engineered viruses to deliver the new DNA to particular cells in the body.
For Parkinson’s, gene therapy techniques have all involved direct injections of these engineered viruses into the brain – a procedure that requires brain surgery. This year, however, we have seen the EXTREMELY rapid development of a non-invasive approach to gene therapy for neurological condition, which could ultimately see viruses being injected in the arm and then travelling up to the brain where they will infect just the desired population of cells.
Last week, however, this approach hit a rather significant obstacle.
In today’s post, we will have a look at this gene therapy technology and review the new research that may slow down efforts to use this approach to help to cure Parkinson’s.
Gene therapy. Source: rdmag
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 begun to see more and more 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.
A good 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 – 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?
In addition to looking at current Parkinson’s disease research on this website, I like to look at where technological advances are taking us with regards to future therapies.
In July of this year, I wrote about a new class of engineered viruses that could potentially allow us to treat conditions like Parkinson’s disease using a non-invasive, gene therapy approach (Click here to read that post). At the time I considered this technology way off at some point in the distant future. Blue sky research. “Let’s wait and see” – sort of thing.
So imagine my surprise when an Italian research group last weekend published a new research report in which they used this futurist technology to correct a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease. Suddenly the distant future is feeling not so ‘distant’.
In today’s post we will review and discuss the results, and look at what happens next.
Technological progress – looking inside the brain. Source: Digitial Trends
I have said several times in the past that the pace of Parkinson’s disease research at the moment is overwhelming.
So much is happening so quickly that it is quite simply difficult to keep up. Not just here on the blog, but also with regards to the ever increasing number of research articles in the “need to read” pile on my desk. It’s mad. It’s crazy. Just as I manage to digest something new from one area of research, two or three other publications pop up in different areas.
But it is the shear speed with which things are moving now in the field of Parkinson’s research that is really mind boggling!
Take for example the case of Squalamine.
In February of this year, researchers published an article outlining how a drug derived from the spiny dogfish could completely suppress the toxic effect of the Parkinson’s associated protein Alpha Synuclein (Click here to read that post).
The humble dogfish. Source: Discovery
And then in May (JUST 3 MONTHS LATER!!!), a biotech company called Enterin Inc. announced that they had just enrolled their first patient in the RASMET study: a Phase 1/2a randomised, controlled, multi-center clinical study evaluating a synthetic version of squalamine (called MSI-1436) in people with Parkinson’s disease. The study will enrol 50 patients over a 9-to-12-month period (Click here for the press release).
Wow! That is fast.
Yeah, I thought so too, but then this last weekend a group in Italy published new research that completely changed my ideas on the meaning of the word ‘fast’. Regular readers will recall that in July I discussed amazing new technology that may one day allow us to inject a virus into a person’s arm and then that virus will make it’s way up to the brain and only infect the cells that we want to have a treatment delivered to. This represents non-invasive (as no surgery is required), gene therapy (correcting a medical condition with the delivery of DNA rather than medication). This new study used the same virus we discussed in July.
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?
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.
Exciting news recently with the announcement of the Ambroxol study starting.
Exciting for two reasons:
- Ambroxol has the potential to make a major impact in the lives of some people with Parkinson’s disease.
- It illustrates how FAST things are moving in the world of Parkinson’s disease!
Inside each and every cell, there are millions of tiny actions taking place. Minute processes all working in a collective manner allowing the cell to function normally. There are lots of proteins helping to make other proteins, lots of proteins helping other proteins to get to where they need to be, and lots of proteins helping to break down other proteins after they have done their job.
All this activity generates a lot of waste. And a fundamental part of the activity in any cell is waste disposal. If that does not function properly, the cell is in serious trouble.
One of the most common genetic mutations associated with Parkinson’s disease – called GBA – results in cells having trouble getting rid of waste.
Adapted from a cartoon by Dr Jing Pu. Source: The Nichd connection
What is GBA?
Glucocerebrosidase (or GBA) is an enzyme that helps with the recycling of waste. It is active in inside ‘lysosomes‘.
What are Lysosomes?
Lysosomes are small structures inside cells that act like recycling centers. Waste gets put inside the lysosome where enzymes like GBA help to break it down into useful parts. Mutations in the GBA gene can result in an abnormally short, non-functioning version of the enzyme. And in those cases the breaking down of waste inside the lysosome because inhibited.
What is the connection between GBA and Parkinson’s disease?
GBA mutations are the most common genetic anomaly associated with Parkinson’s disease. People with a mutation in their GBA gene are at higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease than the general population. And people with Parkinson’s are approximately five times more likely to carry a GBA mutation than healthy control subjects.
So what is Ambroxol?
Ambroxol is a commonly used treatment for respiratory diseases. It promotes mucus clearance and eases coughing. Ambroxol is also anti-inflammatory, reducing redness in a sore throat.
Ok, but why the excitement for Parkinson’s disease?
In May of 2014 – less than 2 years ago – this study was published:
Title: Ambroxol improves lysosomal biochemistry in glucocerebrosidase mutation-linked Parkinson disease cells.
Authors: McNeill A, Magalhaes J, Shen C, Chau KY, Hughes D, Mehta A, Foltynie T, Cooper JM, Abramov AY, Gegg M, Schapira AH.
Journal: Brain. 2014 May;137(Pt 5):1481-95.
PMID: 24574503 (This report is OPEN ACCESS if you want to read it)
It was the first time that Ambroxol – a commercially available drug – had been tested in a Parkinson’s disease related context.
In this study the researchers collected skin cells (called fibroblasts) from eleven people with GBA mutations (some had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease). They measured the amount of glucocerebrosidase protein and enzyme activity in these cells, and they found that glucocerebrosidase enzyme activity was significantly reduced in fibroblasts from GBA mutations (on average just the enzyme was acting at just 5% of normal levels). They found that ambroxol increased glucosylceramidase activity in fibroblasts from people with GBA mutations AND in fibroblasts from healthy controls. Ambroxol treatment also reduced markers of oxidative stress in GBA mutant cells.
Given the increase in glucocerebrosidase activity after ambroxol treatment, the researchers wondered whether the drug would reduce alpha-synuclein levels in cells that were over-expressing this protein. Amazingly, after 5 days of ambroxol treatment, levels of alpha-synuclein had decreased significantly (15% on average 15%).
You can understand why the researchers were a little bit excited by these results. Here was a drug that re-activated the recycling unit in the cell and reduced levels of one of the main proteins associated with Parkinson’s disease. If the drug can reduce the levels of alpha synuclein in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease, maybe the researchers will be able to slow down (or even halt) the disease!
Additional studies have now been reported which have confirmed the initial results.
And now the clinical trial?
Funded by the Cure Parkinson’s Trust and the Van Andel Research Institute (USA), it was announced this week that they had started recruiting subjects to be involved in a clinical trial at the Royal Free Hospital in London. The trial is a phase 1 study which will test the safety of Ambroxol in Parkinson’s disease. The researchers will also look to see if Ambroxol can increase levels of glucocerebrosidase and whether this has any beneficial effects in the subjects. The study will be conducted on 20 people with Parkinson’s disease who also have GBA mutations. They will be given the drug and followed over the next 24 months.
These are exciting times for the world of Parkinson’s disease as these drugs are no longer simply reducing the motor features of the condition, but actually attempting to slow/halt the disease.
And as we suggested at the start of the post the pace of these developments is becoming hard to keep up with.