This week Austrian biotech firm, AFFiRiS AG, made an announcement regarding their experimental immunotherapy/’vaccine’ approach for Parkinson’s.
In their press release, the company provided the results of a long-term Phase I clinical trial testing the tolerability and safety of their treatment AFFITOPE® PD01A.
The treatment was found to be safe and well-tolerated in people with Parkinson’s. But there was one sentence which was particularly intriguing in the press release regarding clinical symptoms.
In today’s post, we will discuss what is meant by ‘immunotherapy’, outline what this particular clinical trial involved, review the results, and explore what this could mean for the Parkinson’s community.
I have previously mentioned on this website that any ‘cure for Parkinson’s’ is going to require three components:
- A disease halting mechanism
- A neuroprotective agent
- Some form of cell replacement therapy
This week we got some interesting clinical news regarding the one of these components: A disease halting mechanism
Clinical trial results from Austria suggest that a new immunotherapy approach in people with Parkinson’s is both safe and well tolerated over long periods of time.
What is immunotherapy?
Researchers are using a powerful new tool to determine which parts of the brain are involved in movement.
The technology involves shining light on brain cells…and well, a bit of biological magic.
Today we will review some newly published research highlighting how this approach and discuss what it means for Parkinson’s disease.
The Vienna city hall. Source: EUtourists
Personal story: I was at the Dopamine 2016 conference in September last year in lovely Vienna (Austria). Wonderful city, beautiful weather, and an amazing collection of brilliant researchers focused on all things dopamine-related. The conference really highlighted all the new research being done on this chemical.
There was – of course – a lots of research being presented on Parkinson’s disease, given that dopamine plays such an important role in the condition.
And it was all really interesting.
Anyways, I was sitting in one of the lecture presentation session, listening to all these new results being discussed.
And then, a lady from Carnegie Mellon University stood up and (without exaggeration) completely – blew – my – mind!
Her name is Aryn H. Gittis:
She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, where her group investigates the neural circuits underlying the regulation of movement, learning, motivation, and reward.
And the ‘mind blowing‘ research that she presented in Vienna has recently been published in the journal Nature Neuroscience:
Title: Cell-specific pallidal intervention induces long-lasting motor recovery in dopamine-depleted mice
Authors: Mastro KJ, Zitelli KT, Willard AM, Leblanc KH, Kravitz AV & Gittis AH
Journal: Nature Neuroscience (2017) doi:10.1038/nn.4559
In this report, Dr Gittis and her colleagues demonstrated that elevating the activity of one type of cell in an area of the brain called the globus pallidus, could provide long lasting relief from Parkinson’s-like motor features.
Hang on a second. What is the globus pallidus?
The globus pallidus is a structure deep in the brain and before Dr Gittis and her colleagues published their research, we already knew it played an important role in our ability to move.
Movement is largely controlled by the activity in a specific group of brain regions, collectively known as the ‘Basal ganglia‘.
The basal ganglia structures (blue) in the human brain. Source: iKnowledge
But while the basal ganglia controls movement, it is not the starting point for the movement process.
The prefrontal cortex is where we do most of our ‘thinking’. It is the part of the brain that makes decisions with regards to many of our actions, particularly voluntary movement. It is involved in what we call ‘executive functions’. It is the green area in the image below.
Areas of the cortex. Source: Rasmussenanders
Now the prefrontal cortex might come up with an idea: ‘the left hand should start to play the piano’. The prefrontal cortex will communicate this idea with the premotor cortex and together they will send a very excited signal down into the basal ganglia for it to be considered. Now in this scenario it might help to think of the cortex as hyperactive, completely out of control toddlers, and the basal ganglia as the parental figure. All of the toddlers are making demands/proposals and sending mixed messages, and it is for the inhibiting basal ganglia to gain control and decide which is the best.
So the basal ganglia receives signals from the cortex, processes that information before sending a signal on to another important participant in the regulation of movement: the thalamus.
A brain scan illustrating the location of the thalamus in the human brain. Source: Wikipedia
The thalamus is a structure deep inside the brain that acts like the central control unit of the brain. Everything coming into the brain from the spinal cord, passes through the thalamus. And everything leaving the brain, passes through the thalamus. It is aware of most everything that is going on and it plays an important role in the regulation of movement. If the cortex is the toddler and the basal ganglia is the parent, then the thalamus is the ultimate policeman.
Now to complicate things for you, the processing of movement in the basal ganglia involves a direct pathway and an indirect pathway. In the simplest terms, the direct pathway encourages movement, while the indirect pathway does the opposite: inhibits it.
The thalamus will receive signals from the two pathways and then decide – based on those signals – whether to send an excitatory or inhibitory message to the primary motor cortex, telling it what to do (‘tell the muscles to play the piano’ or ‘don’t start playing the piano’, respectively). The primary motor cortex is the red stripe in the image below.
The primary motor cortex then sends this structured order down the spinal cord (via the corticospinal pathway) and all going well the muscles will do as instructed.
Source: adapted from Pinterest
Now, in Parkinson’s disease, the motor features (slowness of movement and resting tremor) are associated with a breakdown in the processing of those direct and an indirect pathways. This breakdown results in a stronger signal coming from the indirect pathway – thus inhibiting/slowing movement. This situation results from the loss of dopamine in the brain.
Excitatory signals (green) and inhibitory signals (red) in the basal ganglia, in both a normal brain and one with Parkinson’s disease. Source: Animal Physiology 3rd Edition
Under normal circumstances, dopamine neurons release dopamine in the basal ganglia that helps to mediate the local environment. It acts as a kind of lubricant for movement, the oil in the machine if you like. It helps to reduce the inhibitory bias of the basal ganglia.
Thus, with the loss of dopamine neurons in Parkinson’s disease, there is an increased amount of activity coming out of the indirect pathway.
And as a result, the thalamus is kept in an overly inhibited state. With the thalamus subdued, the signal to the motor cortex is unable to work properly. And this is the reason why people with Parkinson’s disease have trouble initiating movement.
Now, as you can see from the basic schematic above, the globus pallidus is one of the main conduits of information into the thalamus. Given this pivotal position in the regulation of movement, the globus pallidus has been a region of major research focus for a long time.
It is also one of the sites targeted in ‘deep brain stimulation’ therapy for Parkinson’s disease (the thalamus being another target). Deep brain stimulation (or DBS) involves placing electrodes deep into the brain to help regulate activity.
DBS in the globus pallidus. Source: APS
By regulating the level of activity in the globus pallidus, DBS can control the signal being sent to the thalamus, reducing the level of inhibition, and thus alleviating the motor related features of the Parkinson’s disease.
The dramatic effects (and benefits) of deep brain stimulation can be seen in this video (kindly provided by fellow kiwi Andrew Johnson):
Deep brain stimulation is not perfect, however.
The placing of the electrodes can sometimes be off target, resulting in limited beneficial effects. Plus the tuning of the device can be a bit fiddly in some cases.
A more precise method of controlling the globus pallidus would be ideal.
Ok, so the globus Pallidus region of the brain is important for movement. What did Dr Gittis and her colleagues find in their research?
They used an amazing piece of technology called ‘optogenetics‘ to specifically determine which group of cells in the globus pallidus are involved in the inhibitory signals going to the thalamus.
And their results are VERY interesting.
But what is optogenetics?
The short answer: ‘Magic’
The long answer: In 1979, Nobel laureate Francis Crick suggested that one of the major challenge facing the study of the brain was the need to control one type of cell in the brain while leaving others unaltered.
The DNA duo: Francis Crick (left) and James Watson. Source: CNN
Electrical stimulation cannot address this challenge because electrodes stimulate everything in the immediate vicinity without distinction. In addition the signals from electrodes lack precision; they cannot turn on/off neurons as dynamically as we require. The same problems (and more) apply to the use of drugs.
Crick later speculated that the answer might be light.
How on earth would you do that?
Well, in 1971 – eight years before Crick considered the problem – two researchers, Walther Stoeckenius and Dieter Oesterhelt, discovered a protein, bacteriorhodopsin, which acts as an ion pump on the surface of a cell membrane. Amazingly, this protein can briefly become activated by green light.
A rather remarkable property.
Later, other groups found similar proteins. One such protein, called ‘Channelrhodopsin’, was discovered in green algae (click here to read more on this). When stimulated by particular frequencies of light, these channels open up on the cell surface and allow ions to pass through. If enough channels open, this process can stimulate particular activity in the cell.
Channelrhodopsin. Source: Openoptogenetics
Interesting, but how do you get this into the brain?
This is Karl Diesseroff:
Looks like the mad scientist type, right? Well, remember his name, because this guy is fast heading for a Nobel prize.
He is the D. H. Chen Professor of Bioengineering and of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. And he is one of the leading researchers in a field that he basically started.
Back in 2005, he and his collaborators published this research report:
Title: Millisecond-timescale, genetically targeted optical control of neural activity
Authors: Boyden ES, Zhang F, Bamberg E, Nagel G, Deisseroth K.
Journal: Nat Neurosci. 2005 Sep;8(9):1263-8. Epub 2005 Aug 14.
In this research report, Deisseroth and his colleagues (particularly Ed Boyden, lead author and now a professor of Biological Engineering at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT) took the short section of DNA that provides the instructions for making Channelrhodopsin from green algae and they put that piece of DNA into neurons.
And when they then shined blue light on the neurons, guess what happened? Yes, the neurons became activated – that is to say, they produced an ‘action potential’, which is one of the way information is passed from one neuron to another.
Like I said ‘Magic’!
And the best part of this biological manipulation was that Deisseroth and his colleagues could activate the neurons with absolutely amazing precision! By pulsing light on the cells for just millisecond periods, they could elicit instant action potentials:
Precise control of the firing of a neuron. Source: Frontiers
And of course any surrounding cells that do not have the Channelrhodopsin DNA were not affected by the light, but were activated by the signal coming from the Channelrhodopsin+ cells.
This original research report lead to a gold rush-like search for other proteins that are light activated, and we now have an ever increasing toolbox of new proteins with curious properties. For example, we can now not only turn on neurons, but we also have proteins that can shut their activity down, blocking any action potentials (with proteins called ‘Halorhodopsin’ – click here for more on this). And many of these proteins are activated by different frequencies of light. It is really remarkable biology.
Two years after the first report of optogenetics, the first research demonstrating the use of this technology in the brain of a live animal was published (Click here and here to read more on this). And these fantastic tools are not just being used in the brain, they are being applied to tissues all over the body (for example, optogenetics can be used to make heart cells beat – click here to read more on this).
This TED talk video of Ed Boyden’s description of optogenetics is worth watching if you want to better understand the technique and to learn more about it:
Ok, so Dr Gittis and her colleagues used optogenetics in their research. What did they find?
Well, from previous research they knew that there were two types of neurons in the globus pallidus that regulate a lot of the activity in this region. The two types were identifiable by two different proteins: Lim homeobox 6 (Lhx6) and Parvalbumin (PV).
The Lhx6 neurons, which do not have any PV protein, are generally concentrated in the medial portion of the globus pallidus (closer to the centre of the brain). These Lhx6 neurons also have strong connections with the striatum and substantia nigra parts of the brain. The PV neurons, on the other hand, are more concentrated in the lateral portions of the globus pallidus (closer to the side of the brain), and they have strong connections with the thalamus (Click here to read this previous research).
In their new research report, Dr Gittis and her colleagues have used optogenetics to determine the functions of these two types of cells in the globus pallidus.
Initially, they stimulated both Lhx6 and PV neurons at the same time to see if they could restore movement in mice that had been treated with a neurotoxin (6-OHDA) that killed all the dopamine neurons. Unfortunately, they saw no rescue of the motor abilities of the mice.
They next shifted their attention to activating the two groups of cells separately to see if one of them was inhibiting the other. And when they stimulated the PV neurons alone, something amazing happened: the mice basically got up and started moving.
But the really mind blowing part: even after they turned off the stimulating light – after the pulse of light stopped – the mice were still able to keep moving around.
And this effect lasted for several hours! (note that the red line – indicating a decrease in immobility – in the image below remains stable after the stimulation of light pulses – blue lines – has stopped. Even between light pulses the mouse doesn’t return to immobility).
Stimulation of the PV neurons. Source: Nature
The investigators then tested the reverse experiment: inhibiting the Lhx6 neurons.
And guess what?
They found that by inhibiting the Lhx6 neurons with pulses of light, they could restore movement in the dopamine-depleted mice (and again for hours beyond stimulation – note the blue line in the image below remains even after the light pulses – green lines – have stopped).
Inhibiting of the Lhx6 neurons. Source: Nature
This result blew my mind at the conference in Vienna. And even now as I write this, I am still….well, flabbergasted! (there’s a good word).
In addition to being a very elegant experiment and use of this new optogenetic technology, this study opens new doors for us in the Parkinson’s disease research field regarding our understanding of how movement works and how we can now potentially treat PD.
Is optogentics being tested in the clinic?
The incredible answer to this question is: Yes.
A company in Ann Arbor (Michigan) called RetroSense Therapeutics announced in March of 2016 that they had treated their first subject in a Phase I/IIa, open-label, dose-escalation clinical study of the safety and tolerability of their lead product, RST-001 in patients with retinitis pigmentosa (Click here for the press release).
Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited eye disease that causes severe vision impairment due to the progressive degeneration of the rod photoreceptor cells in the retina. The condition starts with patients experiencing progressive “tunnel vision” and eventual leads to blindness.
RetroSense’s lead product, RST-001 is basically a virus that infects cells with the photosensitivity gene, channelrhodopsin-2, that we discussed above. Several studies have demonstrated the ability of this approach to restore the perception of light and even vision in experimental models of blindness (Click here to read more about this).
The therapy involves injecting RST-001 into the retinas of patients who are blind. The infected cells will then fire when stimulated with blue light coming into the eye, and this information will hopefully be passed on to the brain. All going well, RetroSense plans to enroll 15 blind subjects in its trial, and they will follow them for two years. They hope to release some preliminary data, however, later this year. And a lot of people will be watching this trial and waiting for the results.
So, yes, optogenetics is being tested in humans.
Obviously, however, these are the first tentative steps in this new field. And it may be sometime before the medical regulatory bodies allow researchers to start conducting optogentic trials in the brain, let alone on people with Parkinson’s disease.
What does it all mean?
It is always rather wondrous where new discoveries take us.
A little over 10 years ago, some scientists discovered that by inserting a photosensitivity gene into brain cells they could control the firing of those cells with rapid pulses of light. And now other researchers are using that technology not only to better understand the works of our brains and how we move, but also to help make blind people see again.
Whether this technology will be able to replace therapies like deep brain stimulation with a more precise method of controlling the firing of the globus pallidus, is yet yo be seen. But this amazing new technique in our research toolbox will most certainly help to enhance our understanding of Parkinson’s disease. Taking us one step closer to ridding ourselves of it entirely.
The banner for today’s post was sourced from Scientifica
‘Prana’ is a Hindu Sanskrit word meaning “life force”.
An Australian biotech company has chosen this word for their name.
Recently Prana Biotechnology Ltd announced some exciting results from their Parkinson’s disease research programme.
In today’s post we will look at what the company is doing, the science underlying the business plan, and review the results they have so far.
At the end of March, over 3000 researchers in the field of neurodegeneration gathered in the Austrian capital of Vienna for the 13th International Conference on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases and Related Neurological Disorders (also known as ADPD2017).
The Vienna city hall. Source: EUtourists
A lot of interesting new research in the field of Parkinson’s disease was presented at the conference (we will look at some other presentation in future posts), but one was of particular interest to us here at SoPD HQ.
The poster entitled: ‘Abstract: 104 – PBT434 prevents neuronal loss, motor function and cognitive impairment in preclinical models of movement disorders by modulation of intracellular iron’, was presented by Associate Professor David Finkelstein, of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health (Melbourne, Australia).
Unfortunately the ADPD2017 conference’s scientific programme search engine does not allow for individual abstracts to be linked to on the web so if you would like to read the abstract, you will need to click here for the search engine page and search for ‘PBT434’ or ‘Finkelstein’ in the appropriate boxes.
Prof Finkelstein was presenting preclinical research that had been conducted by an Australian biotech company called Prana Biotechnology Ltd.
Source: Prana Biotechnology Ltd
What does the company do?
Prana Biotechnology Ltd has a large portfolio of over 1000 small chemical agents that they have termed ‘MPACs’ (or Metal Protein Attenuating Compounds). These compounds are designed to interrupt the interactions between particular metals and target proteins in the brain. The goal of this interruption is to prevent deterioration of brain cells in neurodegenerative conditions.
For Parkinson’s disease, the company is proposing a particular iron chelator they have called PBT434.
What is an iron chelator?
Iron chelator therapy involves the removal of excess iron from the body with special drugs. Chelate is from the Greek word ‘chela’ meaning “claw”.
Chelator therapy. Source: Stanford
Iron overload in the body is a common medical problem, sometimes arising from disorders of increased iron absorption such as hereditary haemochromatosis. Iron chelator therapy represents one method of reducing the levels of iron in the body.
But why is iron overload a problem?
Iron. Source: GlobalSpec
Good question. It involves the basic properties of iron.
Iron is a chemical element (symbol Fe). It has the atomic number 26 and by mass it is the most common element on Earth (it makes up much of Earth’s outer and inner core). It is absolutely essential for cellular life on this planet as it is involved with the interactions between proteins and enzymes, critical in the transport of oxygen, and required for the regulation of cell growth and differentiation.
So why then – as Rosalind asked in Shakespeare’s As You Like It – “can one desire too much of a good thing?”
Well, if you think back to high school chemistry class you may recall that there are these things called electrons. And if you have a really good memory, you will recall that the chemical hydrogen has one electron, while iron has 26 (hence the atomic number 26).
The electrons of iron and hydrogen. Source: Hypertonicblog
Iron has a really interesting property: it has the ability to either donate or take electrons. And this ability to mediate electron transfer is one of the reasons why iron is so important in the body.
Iron’s ability to donate and accept electrons means that when there is a lot of iron present it can inadvertently cause the production of free radicals. We have previously discussed free radicals (Click here for that post), but basically a free radical is an unstable molecule – unstable because they are missing electrons.
How free radicals and antioxidants work. Source: h2miraclewater
In an unstable format, free radicals bounce all over the place, reacting quickly with other molecules, trying to capture the much needed electron to re-gain stability. Free radicals will literally attack the nearest stable molecule, to steal an electron. This leads to the “attacked” molecule becoming a free radical itself, and thus a chain reaction is started. Inside a living cell this can cause terrible damage, ultimately killing the cell.
Antioxidants can help try and restore the balance, but in the case of iron overload iron doctors will prescribe chelator treatment to deal with the situation more efficiently. By soaking up excess iron, we can limit the amount of damage caused by the surplus of iron.
So what research has been done regarding iron content and the Parkinsonian brain?
Actually, quite a lot.
In 1968, Dr Kenneth Earle used an X-ray based technique to examine the amount of iron in the substantia nigra of people with Parkinson’s disease (Source). The substantial nigra is one of the regions in the brain most badly damaged by the condition – it is where most of the brain’s dopamine neurones resided.
The dark pigmented dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra are reduced in the Parkinson’s disease brain (right). Source:Memorangapp
Earle examined 11 samples and compared them to unknown number of control samples and his results were a little startling:
The concentration of iron in Parkinsonian samples was two times higher than that of the control samples.
Since that first study, approximately 30 investigations have been made into levels of iron in the Parkinsonian brain. Eleven of those studies have replicated the Earle study by looking at postmortem tissue. They have used different techniques and the results have varied somewhat:
- Sofic et al. (1988) 1.8x increase in iron levels
- Dexter et al. (1989) 1.3x increase in iron levels
- Uitti et al. (1989) 1.1x increase in iron levels
- Riederer et al 1989 1.3x increase in iron levels
- Griffiths and Crossman (1993) 2.0x increase in iron levels
- Mann et al. (1994) 1.6x increase in iron levels
- Loeffler et al. (1995) 0.9 (lower)
- Galazka-Friedman et al., 1996 1.0 (no difference)
- Wypijewska et al. (2010) 1.0 (no difference)
- Visanji et al, 2013 1.7x increase in iron levels
Overall, however, there does appear to be a trend in the direction of higher levels of iron in the Parkinsonian brains. A recent meta-analysis of all this data confirmed this assessment as well as noting an increase in the caudate putamen (the region of the brain where the dopamine neuron branches release their dopamine – Click here for that study).
Brain imaging of iron (using transcranial sonography and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)) has also demonstrated a strong correlation between iron levels in the substantia nigra region and Parkinson’s disease severity/duration (Click here and here to read more on this).
Thus, there appears to be an increase of iron in the regions most affected by Parkinson’s disease and this finding has lead researchers to ask whether reducing this increase in iron may help in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.
How could iron overload be bad in Parkinson’s disease?
Well in addition to causing the production of free radicals, there are many possible ways in which iron accumulation could be aggravating cell loss in Parkinson’s disease.
Possible causes and consequences of iron overload in Parkinson’s disease. Source: Hindawi
High levels of iron can cause the oxidation of dopamine, which results in the production of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2 – a reactive oxygen species – the stuff that is used to bleach hair and is also used as a propellant in rocketry!). This reaction can cause further oxidative stress that can then lead to a range of consequences including protein misfolding, lipid peroxidation (which can cause the accumulation of the Parkinson’s associated protein alpha synuclein), mitochondrial dysfunction, and activation of immune cells in the brain.
And this is just a taster of the consequences.
Ok, so iron overload is bad, but what was the research presented in Austria?
Title: PBT434 prevents neuronal loss, motor function and cognitive impairment in preclinical models of movement disorders by modulation of intracellular iron
Authors: D. Finkelstein, P. Adlard, E. Gautier, J. Parsons, P. Huggins, K. Barnham, R. Cherny
Location: C01.a Posters – Theme C – Alpha-Synucleinopathies
The researchers at Prana Biotechnology Ltd assessed the potential of one of their candidate drugs, PBT434, in both cell culture and animal models of Parkinson’s disease. The PBT434 drug was selected for further investigation based on its performance in cell culture assays designed to test the inhibition of oxidative stress and iron-mediated aggregation of Parkinson’s associated proteins like alpha synuclein.
PBT434 significantly reduced the accumulation of alpha synuclein and markers of oxidative stress, and prevented neuronal loss.
The investigators also demonstrated that orally administered PBT434 readily crossed the blood brain barrier and entered the brain. In addition the drug was well-tolerated in the experimental animals and improved motor function in toxin-induced (MPTP and 6-hydroxydopamine) and transgenic mouse models of Parkinson’s disease (alpha synuclein -A53T and tau – rTg4510).
Interestingly, PBT434 also demonstrated neuroprotective properties in animal models of multiple systems atrophy (or MSA). Suggesting that perhaps iron chelation could be a broad neuroprotective approach.
The researchers concluded that this preclinical data demonstrates the efficacy of PBT434 as a clinical candidate for Parkinson’s disease. PBT434 shows a strong toxicology profile and favourable therapeutic activity. Prana is preparing its pre-clinical development package for PBT434 to initiate human clinical trials.
Does Prana have any other drugs in clinical trials?
Yes, they do.
Prana Biotechnology has another product called PBT2.
The Alzheimer’s study was called the IMAGINE Trial, but (there is always a ‘but’) recently PBT2 failed to meet its primary endpoint (significantly reducing levels of beta-amyloid – the perceived bad guy in Alzheimer’s disease) in a phase III trial of mild Alzheimer’s disease. PBT2 was, however, shown to be safe and very well tolerated over the 52 week trial, with no difference in the occurrence of adverse events between the placebo and treated groups.
In addition, there was less atrophy (shrinkage) in the brains of those patients treated with PBT2 when compared to control brains, 2.6% and 4.0%, respectively (based on brain imaging). The company is tracking measures of brain volume and cognition in a 12 month extension study. It could be interesting to continue that follow up long term to evaluate the consequences of long term use of this drug on Alzheimer’s disease – even if the effect is minimal, any drug that can slow the disease down is useful and could be used in conjunction with other neuroprotective medications.
For Huntington’s disease, the company is also using the PBT2 drug and this study has had a bit more success. The study, called Reach2HD, was a six month phase II clinical trial in 109 patients with early to mid-stage Huntington’s disease, across 20 sites in the US and Australia. The company was aiming to assess the safety profile of this drug in this particular condition, as well as determining the motor and behavioural benefits.
In the ReachHD study, PBT2 showed signs of improving some aspects of cognitive function in the study, which potentially represents a major event for a disease for which there is very little in the way of medical treatments.
For a full description of the PBT2 trials, see this wikipedia page on the topic.
Is Prana the only research group working on iron chelators technology for Parkinson’s disease?
There is a large EU-based consortium called FAIR PARK II, which is running a five year trial (2015 – 2020) of the iron chelator deferiprone (also known as Ferriprox). The study is a multi-centre, placebo-controlled, randomised clinical trial involving 338 people with recently diagnosed Parkinson’s disease.
The population will be divided into two group (169 subjects each). They will then be assigned either deferiprone (15 mg/kg twice a day) or a placebo. Each subject will be given 9-months of treatment followed by a 1-month post-treatment monitoring period, in order to assess the disease-modifying effect of deferiprone (versus placebo).
Deferiprone. Source: SGPharma
As far as we are aware, this FAIR PARK II clinical trial is still recruiting participants – please click here to read more about this – thus it will most likely be some time before we hear the results of this study.
Are there natural sources of chelators?
Yes there are. In fact, many natural antioxidants exert some chelating activities.
Prominent among the natural sources of chelators: Green tea has components of plant extracts, such as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG – which we have previously discussed in regards to Parkinson’s disease, click here to read that post) which possess structures which infer metal chelating properties.
As we have said before people, drink more green tea!
Anyone fancy a cuppa? Source: Expertrain
So what does it all mean?
Summing up: We do not know what causes Parkinson’s disease. Most of our experimental treatments are focused on the biological events that occur in the brain around and after the time of diagnosis. These include an apparent accumulation of iron in affected brain regions.
Research groups are currently experimenting with drugs that reduce the levels of iron in the brain as a potential treatment for Parkinson’s disease. Preclinical data certainly look positive. We will now have to wait and see if those results translate into the human.
Previous clinical trials of metal chelators in neurodegeneration have had mixed success in demonstrating positive benefits. It may well be, however, that this treatment approach should be used in conjunction with other neuroprotective approaches – as a supplement. It will be interesting to see how Prana Biotechnology’s drug PBT434 fares in human clinical trials for Parkinson’s disease.
Stay tuned for more on this.
UPDATE – 3rd May 2017
Today the results of a double-blind, phase II clinical trial of iron chelator deferiprone in Parkinson’s disease were published. The results of the study indicate a mildly positive effect (though not statistically significant) after 6 months of daily treatment.
Title: Brain iron chelation by deferiprone in a phase 2 randomised double-blinded placebo controlled clinical trial in Parkinson’s disease
Authors: Martin-Bastida A, Ward RJ, Newbould R, Piccini P, Sharp D, Kabba C, Patel MC, Spino M, Connelly J, Tricta F, Crichton RR & Dexter DT
Journal: Scientific Reports (2017), 7, 1398.
PMID: 28469157 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
In this Phase 2 randomised, double-blinded, placebo controlled clinical trial, the researchers recruited 22 people with early stage Parkinson’s disease (disease duration of less than 5 years; 12 males and 10 females; aged 50–75 years). They were randomly assigned to either a placebo group (8 participants), or one of two deferiprone treated groups: 20 mg/kg per day (7 participants) or 30 mg/kg per day (7 participants). The treatment was two daily oral doses (taken morning and evening), and administered for 6 months with neurological examinations, brain imaging and blood sample collections being conducted at 0, 3 and 6 months.
Deferiprone therapy was well tolerated and brain imaging indicated clearance of iron from various parts of the brain in the treatment group compared to the placebo group. Interestingly, the 30 mg/kg deferiprone treated group demonstrated a trend for improvement in motor-UPDRS scores and quality of life (although this was not statistically significance). The researchers concluded that “more extensive clinical trials into the potential benefits of iron chelation in PD”.
Given the size of the groups (7 people) and the length of the treatment period (only 6 months) in this study it is not really a surprise that the researchers did not see a major effect. That said, it is very intriguing that they did see a trend towards motor score benefits in the 30 mg/kg deferiprone group – remembering that this is a double blind study (so even the investigators were blind as to which group the subjects were in).
We will now wait to see what the FAIR PARK II clinical trial finds.
UPDATE: 28th June 2017
Today, the research that Prana biotechnology Ltd was presenting in Vienna earlier this year was published:
Title: The novel compound PBT434 prevents iron mediated neurodegeneration and alpha-synuclein toxicity in multiple models of Parkinson’s disease.
Authors: Finkelstein DI, Billings JL, Adlard PA, Ayton S, Sedjahtera A, Masters CL, Wilkins S, Shackleford DM, Charman SA, Bal W, Zawisza IA, Kurowska E, Gundlach AL, Ma S, Bush AI, Hare DJ, Doble PA, Crawford S, Gautier EC, Parsons J, Huggins P, Barnham KJ, Cherny RA.
Journal: Acta Neuropathol Commun. 2017 Jun 28;5(1):53.
PMID: 28659169 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
The results suggest that PBT434 is far less potent than deferiprone or deferoxamine at lowering cellular iron levels, but this weakness is compensated by the reduced levels of alpha synuclein accumulation in models of Parkinson’s disease. PBT434 certainly appears to be neuroprotective demonstrating improvements in motor function, neuropathology and biochemical markers of disease state in three different animal models of Parkinson’s disease.
The researchers provide little information as to when the company will be exploring clinical trials for this drug, but in the press release associated with the publication, Dr David Stamler (Prana’s Chief Medical Officer and Senior Vice President, Clinical Development) was quoted saying that they “are eager to begin clinical testing of PBT434”. We’ll keep an eye to the ground for any further news.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Prana Biotechnology Ltd is an Australasian biotechnology company that is publicly listed on the ASX. The information presented here is for educational purposes. Under no circumstances should investment decisions be made based on the information provided here. The SoPD website has no financial or beneficial connection to either company. We have not been approached/contacted by the company to produce this post, nor have we alerted them to its production. We are simply presenting this information here as we thought the science of what the company is doing might be of interest to other readers.
In addition, under absolutely no circumstances should anyone reading this material consider it medical advice. The material provided here is for educational purposes only. Before considering or attempting any change in your treatment regime, PLEASE consult with your doctor or neurologist. Metal chelators are clinically available medications, but it is not without side effects (for more on this, see this website). We urge caution and professional consultation before altering a treatment regime. SoPD can not be held responsible for any actions taken based on the information provided here.
The banner for today’s post was sourced from Prana
Interest press release from the biotech company AFFiRiS last week (Click here for the press release) regarding their clinical trial of a vaccine for Parkinson’s disease. We have previously outlined the idea behind the trial (Click here for that post) and the team at Michael J Fox foundation also provide a great overview (Click here for that – MJF are partly funding the trial). In today’s post we will briefly review what results AFFiRiS has shared.
Vaccination. Source: WebMD
Vaccination represents an efficient way of boosting the immune system in the targeting of foreign or problematic agents in the body. For a long time it has been believed that the protein Alpha Synuclein is the ‘problematic agent’ involved in the spread of Parkinson’s disease inside the brain. Alpha synuclein is required inside brain cells for various normal functions. In Parkinson’s disease, however, this protein aggregates for some reason and forms circular clusters inside cells called Lewy bodies.
A lewy body (brown with a black arrow) inside a cell. Source: Cure Dementia
It has been hypothesized (and there is a lot of experimental evidence available to support the idea) that released alpha synuclein – freely floating between brain cells – may be one method by which Parkinson’s disease spread through the brain. With this in mind, groups of scientists (like those at AFFiRiS) are attempting to halt the spread of the condition, by training the immune system to target free-floating alpha synuclein. Vaccination is one method by which this is being attempted.
AFFiRiS is a small biotech company in Vienna (Austria) that has an ongoing clinical trial program for a vaccine (called ‘AFFITOPE® PD01A’) against alpha synuclein. The subjects in the study (22 people with Parkinson’s disease) received four vaccinations – each injection given four-weeks apart – and then the subjects were observed for 2-3 years (6 additional subjects were included in the study for comparative sake, but they did not receive the vaccine.
Last week the company issued a press release regarding a phase 1 trial (AFF008), which indicated that PD01A is safe and well tolerated, and causing an immune response (which is a good thing) in 19 of 22 (86%) of vaccinated subjects. In 12 of those 19 (63%) participants with and immune response, the researchers found alpha-synuclein antibodies in the blood, suggesting that the body was reacting to the injected vaccine and producing antibodies against alpha synuclein (for more on what antibodies are, click here).
The scientists also conducted some exploratory efficacy assessments – to determine if they could see if the vaccine was working clinically and slowing down the disease. Eight of the 19 (42%) subjects with an immune response, had no increase of their dopaminergic medication (eg. L-Dopa) over the course of the observational period (average three years per subject). And five of those eight subjects had stable clinical motor scores at the end of the study.
The company also conducted parallel laboratory-based experiments which indicate that AFFITOPE® PD01A-induced antibodies are binding to alpha-synuclein in various models of Parkinson’s disease.
The company will be presenting the results on a poster at the 4th World Parkinson Congress in Portland, Oregon, USA on September 21.
So this is a good result right?
It is easy to get excited by the results announced in the press release, but they must be taken with a grain of salt. This is a Phase I trial which is only designed to test the safety of a new therapeutic agent in humans. From this point of view: Yes, the study produced a good result – the vaccine was well tolerated by the trial subjects.
Drawing any other conclusions, however, is not really possible – the study was not double-blind and the assignment of subjects to the treatment groups was not randomize. In addition, the small sample size makes it very difficult to make any definitive conclusions. It must be noted that of the 22 people with Parkinson’s disease that started the study, only five exhibited stabilized clinical motor scores at the end of the study. It may be too soon to tell if the vaccine is having an effect in most of the people involved in the study. Thus longer observation periods are required – which the company is currently undertaking with their follow-up study, AFF008AA. The results of that study are expected in middle-late 2017.
We shall keep you posted.
The banner for today’s post was sourced from AFFiRiS