Today – 27th February, 2019 – the long-awaited results of the Phase II GDNF clinical trial were published.
GDNF (or glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor) is a protein that our bodies naturally produce to nurture and support cells. Extensive preclinical research suggested that this protein was particularly supportive of dopamine neurons – a group of cells in the brain that are affected by Parkinson’s.
The results of the Phase II clinical trial suggest that the treatment was having an effect in the brain (based on imaging data), but the clinic-based methods of assessment indicated no significant effect between the treatment and placebo groups.
In today’s post we will look at what GDNF is, review the previous research on the protein, discuss the results of the latest study, and look at what happens next.
And be warned this is going to be a long post!
Boulder, Colorado. Source: Rps
It all began way back in 1991.
George H. W. Bush was half way into his presidency, a rock band called Nirvana released their second album (‘Nevermind’), Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls rolled over the LA Lakers to win the NBA championship, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘Terminator 2’ was the top grossing movie of the year.
But in the city of Boulder (Colorado), a discovery was being made that would change Parkinson’s research forever.
In 1991, Dr Leu-Fen Lin and Dr Frank Collins – both research scientists at a small biotech company called Synergen, isolated a protein that they called glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor, or GDNF.
And in 1993, they shared their discovery with the world in this publication:
Title: GDNF: a glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor for midbrain dopaminergic neurons.
Authors: Lin LF, Doherty DH, Lile JD, Bektesh S, Collins F.
Journal: Science, 1993 May 21;260(5111):1130-2.
For the uninitiated among you, when future historians write the full history of Parkinson’s, there will be no greater saga than GDNF.
In fact, in the full history of medicine, there are few experimental treatments that people get more excited, divided, impassioned and evangelical than GDNF.
This ‘wonder drug’ has been on a rollercoaster ride of a journey.
What exactly is GDNF?
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?