At the end of each month, the Science of Parkinson’s writes a post which provides an overview of some of the major pieces of Parkinson’s-related research that were made available.
In this post we review some of the research from February 2018.
The post is divided into four parts based on the type of research (Basic biology, disease mechanism, clinical research, and other news).
Seeing shadows: Punxsutawney Phil. Source: Wordonfire
In major world event news: On the 2nd February of 2018, Punxsutawney Phil – the groundhog who resides at Gobbler’s Knob of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania – scurried out of his little hole and saw his shadow. This omen indicates that we have a long winter. Given how hard and bitter this particular winter has been, Americans naturally rejoiced.
On the 6th February, SpaceX successfully launched a Tesla sports car into space – see the video below for the highlights (and if you don’t have time to watch it all, at the very least jump forward to 3:45 and watch the two boosters land simultaneously – surely they didn’t plan for it to be that perfect!)
In other news, on the 1st February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it was dramatically downsizing its epidemic prevention activities in 39 out of 49 countries, due to concerns about funding.
And of course we had the 2018 Winter Olympics – where New Zealand came in 27th on the medals board:
In the world of Parkinson’s research, a great deal of new research and news was reported.
In February 2018, there were 698 research articles added to the Pubmed website with the tag word “Parkinson’s” attached (1577 for all of 2018 so far). In addition, there was a wave to news reports regarding various other bits of Parkinson’s research activity (clinical trials, etc).
The top 5 pieces of PD news
In 2017, Parkinson’s UK – the largest charitable funder of Parkinson’s disease research in Europe – took a bold step forward in their efforts to find novel therapies.
In addition to funding a wide range of small and large academic research projects and supporting clinical trials, they have also decided to set up ‘virtual biotech’ companies – providing focused efforts to develop new drugs for Parkinson’s, targeting very specific therapeutic areas.
In today’s post we will look at the science behind their first virtual biotech company: Keapstone.
A virtual world of bioscience. Source: Cast-Pharma
I have previously discussed the fantastic Parkinson’s-related research being conducted at Sheffield University (Click here to read that post). Particularly at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) which was opened in 2010 by Her Majesty The Queen. It is the first European Institute purpose-built and dedicated to basic and clinical research into Motor Neuron Disease as well as other neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
The research being conducted at the SITraN has given rise to multiple lines of research following up interesting drug candidates which are gradually being taken to the clinic for various conditions, including Parkinson’s.
It’s all very impressive.
And apparently I’m not the only one who thought it was impressive.
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?
Here at the SoPD we are politically neutral.
That said, I will report on events that directly impact the world of Parkinson’s disease research (without adding too much in the way of personal opinions).
Recent legislation introduced in the US congress could have major implications for subsets of the Parkinson’s disease community, as well as a host of additional medical conditions. The legislation is seeking to remove the orphan drug tax credit.
In today’s post, we will have a look at what the orphan drug tax credit is, and why its removal could be damaging for Parkinson’s.
The United States Capitol. Source: SpotHeroBlog
On November 2, House Republican lawmakers introduced a bill to reform the U.S. tax code. The complicated tax system probably needs a serious clean up, but the legislation will also terminate something called the orphan drug tax credit.
What is the orphan drug tax credit?
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?
The title of this post probably reads like the mad, drug-fuelled scream of a drunk Saturday night party animal, but the elements of it may be VERY important for a particular kind of Parkinson’s disease.
Mutations in a gene called DJ-1 can cause an early onset form of Parkinson’s disease. The protein of DJ-1 plays an important role in how cells handle oxidative stress – or the increase in damaging free radicals (explained below).
This week researchers announced that they have found an interesting new therapeutic target for people with DJ-1 associated Parkinson’s disease: A chemical called Isocitrate.
In this post, we will discuss what DJ-1 is involved with Parkinson’s disease, how isocitrate helps the situation, and what the results of new research mean for future therapeutic strategies.
In 2017, we are not only observing the 200 year anniversary of the first description of Parkinson’s disease (by one Mr James Parkinson), but also the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the first genetic variation associated with the condition (Click here to read more about that). Our understanding of the genetics of Parkinson’s disease since 1997, has revolutionised the way we look at Parkinson’s disease and opened new doors that have aided us in our understanding.
During the last 20 years, we have identified numerous sections of DNA (these regions are called genes) where small errors in the genetic coding (mutations or variants) can result in an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. As the graph below indicates, mutations in some of these genes are very rare, but infer a very high risk, while others are quite common but have a low risk of Parkinson’s disease.
The genetics of PD. Source: Journal of Parkinson’s disease
Some of the genetic mutation need to be provided by both the parents for Parkinson’s to develop (an ‘autosomal recessive‘ mutation – the yellow circles in the graph above); while in other cases the genetic variant needs only to be provided by one of the parents (an ‘autosomal dominant’ mutation – the blue circles). Many of the genetic mutations are very common and simply considered a region of increased risk (green circles).
Importantly, all of these genes provide the instructions for making a protein – which are the functional parts in a cell. And each of these proteins have specific roles in biological processes. These functions tell us a little bit about how Parkinson’s disease may be working. Each of them is a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that we are trying to finish. As you can see in the image below, many of the genes mentioned in the graph above give rise to proteins that are involved in different parts of the process of autophagy – or the waste disposal system of the cell. You may notice that some proteins, like SCNA (otherwise known as alpha synuclein), are involved in multiple steps in this process.
The process of autophagy. Source: Nature
In today’s post we are going to look at new research regarding just one of these genes/proteins. It is called DJ-1, also known as Parkinson disease protein 7 (or PARK7).
What is DJ-1?
Mitochondrial division inhibitor-1 (mdivi-1) is a small molecule drug that is demonstrating very impressive effects in preclinical models of Parkinson’s disease. With further research it could represent a potential future therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease, particularly those with genetic mutations affecting the mitochondria in their cells.
What are mitochondria?
In this post, we will explain what mitochondria are, how they may be involved in Parkinson’s disease, and we will discuss what the results of new research mean for future therapeutic strategies.
Mitochondria are fascinating.
Utterly. Utterly. Fascinating.
On the most basic level, Mitochondria (mitochondrion, singular; from the Greek words mitos (thread) and chondros (granule)) are just tiny little bean-shaped structures within the cells in our body, and their primary function is to act as the power stations. They supply the bulk of energy that cells require to keep the lights on. This chemical form of energy produced by the mitochondria is called adenosine triphosphate (or ATP). Lots of mitochondria are required in each cell to help keep the cell alive (as is shown in the image below, which is showing just the mitochondria (red) and the nucleus (blue) of several cells).
Lots of mitochondria (red) inside cells (nucleus in blue). Source: Clonetech
That’s the basic stuff – the general definition you will find in most text books on biology.
But let me ask you this:
How on earth did mitochondria come to be inside each cell and playing such a fundamental role?
I don’t know. Are you going to tell me?
Because we simply don’t know.
But understand this: Mitochondria are intruders.
It is particularly useful for groups like the Parkinson’s community though, who are tired of having just one hour per year of assessments with their neurologist.
In today’s post, we will look at some new tracking/monitoring technologies that are being developed that could have important implications for not only how we assess Parkinson’s disease, but also for how we treat it.
Homo deus. Source: RealClearLife
I have recently finished reading ‘Homo Deus‘ by Yuval Noah Harari – the excellent follow-up to his previous book ‘Sapiens‘ (which is an absolute MUST READ!). The more recent book provides an utterly fascinating explanation of how we have come to be where we will be in the future (if that makes any sense).
In the final few chapters, Harari discusses many of the technologies that are currently under development which will change the world we live in (with a lot of interesting and cautionary sections on artificial intelligence – the machines that will know vastly more about us than we know about ourselves).
Of particular interest in this part of the book was a section on the Google-Novartis smart lens.
What is the Google-Novartis smart lens?
The initial project is rather ambitious: develop and take to the clinic a glucose-sensing contact lens for people with diabetes. The idea has been particularly championed by Google founder Sergey Brin (a prominent figure within the Parkinson’s community with his significant contributions to Parkinson’s research each year).
People with diabetes have to keep pricking their finger over the course of a day in order to check the levels of insulin in their blood. A less laborious approach would be welcomed by the diabetic world (an estimated 415 million people living with diabetes in the world).
This is what the lens may eventually look like:
Last Monday, a SpaceX rocket lifted off from the Florida peninsular on route to the International Space Station.
On board that craft was an experiment that could have big implications for Parkinson’s disease. It involves a Parkinson’s-associated protein called Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (or LRRK2).
In today’s post, we will discuss why we needed to send this protein into orbit.
The International Space Station. Source: NASA
When you look up at the sky tonight – if you look for long enough – you may well see a bright little object hurtling across the sky (Click here to learn more about how to track the International Space Station). Know that inside that bright little object passing over you there is currently some Parkinson’s disease-related research being conducted.
What is the International Space Station?
The International Space Station (or the ISS) is the largest human-made object that we have ever put into space. It is so big in fact that you can see it with the naked eye from Earth.
(How’s that for exciting viewing?)
The current space station is 73.3 metres (240 feet) long and 44.5 metres (146 feet) wide, weighing approximately 420 tonnes (924,740 lb), and it has been continuously occupied for 16 years and 289 days, making it the longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit. The ISS travels at a speed of 7.67 km/second, maintains an altitude of between 330 and 435 km (205 and 270 mi), and completes 15.54 orbits per day (it has made over 102,000 orbits!).
The size of the the ISS compared to a Boeing Jumbo jet. Source: Reddit
First approved by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, it was not until November 1998 that the first components of the International space station were first launched into orbit. 36 shuttle flights were made to help build the station. The first crew members took up residence on the 2nd November 2000, and the station was completed in 2011. There is always 6 crew members on board – the current team are Expedition 52 – and it has been visited by 220 astronauts, cosmonauts and space tourists from 17 different nations since the project began.
Oh yeah, and if you want to see what it looks like on board the ISS, in 2015 the European Space Agency provided an interactive tour and earlier this year Google Maps added an interactive tour of the ISS.