In my previous post, we briefly reviewed the results of the phase II double-blind, randomised clinical trial of Exenatide in Parkinson’s disease. The study indicates a statistically significant effect on motor symptom scores after being treated with the drug.
Over the last few days, there have been many discussions about the results, what they mean for the Parkinson’s community, and where things go from here, which have led to further questions.
In this post I would like to address several matters that have arisen which I did not discuss in the previous post, but that I believe are important.
I found out about the Exenatide announcement – via whispers online – on the afternoon of the release. And it was in a mad rush when I got home that night that I wrote up the post explaining what Exenatide is. I published the post the following evening however because I could not access the research report from home (seriously guys, biggest finding in a long time and it’s not OPEN ACCESS?!?!?) and I had to wait until I got to work the next day to actually view the publication.
I was not really happy with the rushed effort though and decided to follow up that post. In addition, there has been A LOT of discussion about the results over the weekend and I thought it might be good to bring aspects of those different discussion together here. The individual topics are listed below, in no particular order of importance:
1. Size of the effect
There are two considerations here.
Firstly, there have been many comments about the actual size of the effect in the results of the study itself. When people have taken a deeper look at the findings, they have come back with questions regarding those findings.
And second, there have also been some comments about the size of the effect that this result has already had on the Parkinson’s community, which has been considerable (and possibly disproportionate to the actual result).
The size of the effect in the results
The results of the study suggested that Exenatide had a positive effect on the motor-related symptoms of Parkinson’s over the course of the 60 week trial. This is what the published report says, it is also what all of the media headlines have said, and it sounds really great right?
The main point folks keep raising, however, is that the actual size of the positive effect is limited to just the motor features of Parkinson’s disease. If one ignores the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS) motor scores and focuses on the secondary measures, there isn’t much to talk about. In fact, there were no statistically significant differences in any of the secondary outcome measures. These included:
Did you know that human saliva is 99.5% water?
But a recent set of studies have suggested that the remaining 0.5% holds some interesting insights into Parkinson’s disease.
Interesting fact about saliva – while there is a lot of debate as to how much saliva we produce on a daily basis (anywhere between 0.75 to 1.5 litres per day), it is generally accepted that during sleep the amount of saliva produced drops to almost nothing. Why? Big shrug.
Saliva is a solution produced by three main sets of glands in our mouth: the parotid, Sublingual, and Submandibular glands:
The human salivary glands. Source: WebMD
The solution produced serves several important functions, namely:
- beginning the process of digestion by breaking down food particles.
- protecting teeth from bacterial decay.
- Moisturising food to aid in the initiation of swallowing.
As we mentioned above, 99.5% of saliva is water. The remaining 0.5% is made up of enzymes and antimicrobial agents. There is also a number of cells in each millilitre of saliva (as many as 8 million human and 500 million bacterial cells per millilitre).
By analysing those human cells, scientists can learn a lot about a person. For example, they can conduct genetic analysis and determine if a person has a particular mutation.
So what has this got to do with Parkinson’s disease?
Well, recently several research groups have been looking at saliva with the hope that biomarkers – chemicals that may allow for early detection or better monitoring of Parkinson’s disease – could be found.
And recently, some of that research has seemingly paid big dividends:
Title: Prevalence of Submandibular Gland Synucleinopathy in Parkinson’s Disease, Dementia with Lewy Bodies and other Lewy Body Disorders.
Authors: Beach TG, Adler CH, Serrano G, Sue LI, Walker DG, Dugger BN, Shill HA, Driver-Dunckley E, Caviness JN, Intorcia A, Filon J, Scott S, Garcia A, Hoffman B, Belden CM, Davis KJ, Sabbagh MN.
Journal: J Parkinsons Dis. 2016 [Epub ahead of print]
In this study, published in January of this year, the researchers collected small biopsies of the submandibular gland (one of the three primary producers of saliva) from the bodies of people who died with various conditions (including Parkinson’s disease). They analysed the biopsies for alpha synuclein – the chemical in the brain associated with Parkinson’s disease. We have previously written about alpha synuclein, a chemical in the brain that is associated with Parkinson’s disease (for a primer on alpha synuclein, click here). They found that alpha synuclein was present in the saliva gland of 89% of the subjects who died with Parkinson’s disease, but none of the 110 control samples.
This result led the same research groups to attempt a similar study on live subjects and they published the results of that study in February of this year:
Title: Peripheral Synucleinopathy in Early Parkinson’s Disease: Submandibular Gland Needle Biopsy Findings.
Authors: Adler CH, Dugger BN, Hentz JG, Hinni ML, Lott DG, Driver-Dunckley E, Mehta S, Serrano G, Sue LI, Duffy A, Intorcia A, Filon J, Pullen J, Walker DG, Beach TG.
Journal: Mov Disord. 2016 Feb;31(2):250-6.
The researchers enrolled 25 people with early-stage Parkinson’s disease (less than 5 years since diagnosis) and 10 control subjects. All of these subjects underwent a small biopsy of the submandibular gland. Those biopsies were then analysed for alpha synuclein and the researchers found that 74% of the Parkinsonian biopsies and 22% control biopsies had alpha synuclein present in the submandibular gland.
And remarkably, this report was followed up this last week by a group in Italy, who published some very interesting data:
Title: Abnormal Salivary Total and Oligomeric Alpha-Synuclein in Parkinson’s Disease.
Authors: Vivacqua G, Latorre A, Suppa A, Nardi M, Pietracupa S, Mancinelli R, Fabbrini G, Colosimo C, Gaudio E, Berardelli A.
Journal: PLoS One. 2016 Mar 24;11(3):e0151156.
PMID: 27011009 (this report is OPEN-ACCESS if you would like to read it)
The researchers collected salivary samples – actual spit – from 60 people with Parkinson’s disease and 40 age/sex matched control subjects. They then measured the saliva for different types of alpha synuclein. In this study, the researchers measured both the total amount of alpha synuclein in the saliva and also special forms of alpha synuclein.
Alpha synuclein initially starts out in the brain in a monomeric form – as a single version of alpha synuclein. This form of alpha synuclein is believed to be safe. A more mature form of alpha synuclein, called oligomeric, is believed to be the seed of the aggregations found in the Parkinsonian brain, Lewy bodies.
Curiously, in this study the researchers found that the total amount of alpha synuclein in the salivary of people with Parkinson’s disease was lower than that of the control subjects. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – the amount of alpha synuclein oligomers was higher in the people with Parkinson’s disease than normal healthy controls.
The researchers proposed that the decreased concentration of total alpha-synuclein may reflect the formation of lewy bodies in the brain, and that this test might help the early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
Here at the Science of Parkinson’s we are approaching this research cautiously. Previous attempts at measuring saliva in Parkinson’s disease have not had such significant results when comparing people with Parkinson’s disease and controls (click here for more about that study). The need for better biomarkers of Parkinson’s disease provides the reasons for this research, but the variability between the results different groups are getting leaves one wondering about the viability of the approach. It would indeed make for a very easy, non-invasive testing platform for Parkinson’s disease (‘Please spit into this tube for me’), but more research is needed before it can be applied on the large scale.
We’ll keep watching and hoping.