This week a biotech company called Voyager Therapeutics provided an update regarding a gene therapy approach for people with severe Parkinson’s.
Gene therapy is an experimental therapeutic approach that involves inserting new DNA into cells using a virus. The introduced DNA can help a cell to produce proteins that it usually wouldn’t produce, and this can help to alleviate the motor features of Parkinson’s.
In today’s post we will discuss what gene therapy is, what Voyager Therapeutics is trying to do, and outline what their update reported.
There are 4 phases to the clinical trial process of testing new treatment for use in humans:
- Phase I determines if a treatment is safe in humans (this is conducted in an ‘open label’ manner)
- Phase II ‘double blindly’ assesses in a small cohort of subjects if the treatment is effective
- Phase III involves randomly and blindly testing the treatment in a very large cohort of patients
- Phase IV (often called Post Marketing Surveillance Trials) are studies conducted after the treatment has been approved for clinical use
(‘Open label’ refers to both the investigator and the participants in a study knowing what treatment is being administered; while ‘double blind’ testing refers to studies in which the participants and the investigators do not know whether the participant is receiving the active treatment or an inert control treatment until the end of the study).
Based on the successful completion of their Phase I clinical trials for their gene therapy treatment called VY-AADC (Click here to read more about this), Boston-based biotech firm Voyager Therapeutics approached the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the goal of shifting their clinical trial programme into Phase II testing.
What is gene therapy?
Today biotech company Voyager Therapeutics announced an update on their ongoing phase Ib clinical trial. The trial is evaluating the safety and tolerance of a gene therapy approach for people with advanced Parkinson’s.
Gene therapy is a technique that involves inserting new DNA into a cell using viruses. In this clinical trial, the virally delivered DNA helps the infected cell to produce dopamine in order to alleviate the motor features of Parkinson’s.
In today’s post we will discuss what gene therapy is, review the new results mentioned in the update, and look at other gene therapy approaches for Parkinson’s.
Voyager Therapeutics is a clinical-stage gene therapy company that is focused on treatments for neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s. Today the company announced an update of their ongoing Phase 1b trial of their product VY-AADC01 (Click here to see the press release).
VY-AADC01 represents a new class of treatment for Parkinson’s, as it is a form of gene therapy.
What is gene therapy?
The gene therapy involves introducing a piece of DNA into a cell which will cause the cell to produce proteins that they usually do not (either by nature or by mutation). The DNA is artificially inserted into cells and the cell’s protein producing machinery does the rest.
How does gene therapy work?
At the end of each year, it is a useful practise to review the triumphs (and failures) of the past 12 months. It is an exercise of putting everything into perspective.
2017 has been an incredible year for Parkinson’s research.
And while I appreciate that statements like that will not bring much comfort to those living with the condition, it is still important to consider and appreciate what has been achieved over the last 12 months.
In this post, we will try to provide a summary of the Parkinson’s-related research that has taken place in 2017 (Be warned: this is a VERY long post!)
The number of research reports and clinical trial studies per year since 1817
As everyone in the Parkinson’s community is aware, in 2017 we were observing the 200th anniversary of the first description of the condition by James Parkinson (1817). But what a lot of people fail to appreciate is how little research was actually done on the condition during the first 180 years of that period.
The graphs above highlight the number of Parkinson’s-related research reports published (top graph) and the number of clinical study reports published (bottom graph) during each of the last 200 years (according to the online research search engine Pubmed – as determined by searching for the term “Parkinson’s“).
PLEASE NOTE, however, that of the approximately 97,000 “Parkinson’s“-related research reports published during the last 200 years, just under 74,000 of them have been published in the last 20 years.
That means that 3/4 of all the published research on Parkinson’s has been conducted in just the last 2 decades.
And a huge chunk of that (almost 10% – 7321 publications) has been done in 2017 only.
So what happened in 2017? Continue reading
Last week, as everyone was preparing for Christmas celebrations, researchers at the pharmaceutic company Novartis published new research on a gene that is involved with Parkinson’s, called PARKIN (or PARK2).
They used a new gene editing technology – called CRISPR – to conduct a large screening study to identify proteins that are involved with the activation of PARKIN.
In today’s post we will look at what PARKIN does, review the research report, and discuss how these results could be very beneficial for the Parkinson’s community.
As many people within the Parkinson’s community will be aware, 2017 represented the 200th anniversary of the first report of Parkinson’s disease by James Parkinson.
It also the 20th anniversary of the discovery of first genetic mutation (or variant) that increases the risk of developing Parkinson’s. That genetic variation occurs in a region of DNA (a gene) called ‘alpha synuclein’. Yes, that same alpha synuclein that seems to play such a critical role in Parkinson’s (Click here to read more about the 20th anniversary).
In 2018, we will be observing the 20th anniversary of the second genetic variation associated with Parkinson.
That gene is called PARKIN:
Title: Mutations in the parkin gene cause autosomal recessive juvenile parkinsonism.
Authors: Kitada T, Asakawa S, Hattori N, Matsumine H, Yamamura Y, Minoshima S, Yokochi M, Mizuno Y, Shimizu N
Journal: Nature. 1998 Apr 9; 392(6676):605-8
In 1998, Japanese researchers published this report based on 5 individuals from 4 Japanese families who were affected by juvenile-onset Parkinson’s. In family 1, the affected individual was a female, 43 years old, born of first-cousin parents, and her two younger brothers are healthy. Her condition was diagnosed in her teens and it had then progressed very slowly afterwards. Her response to L-dopa was very positive, but L-dopa-induced dyskinesia were frequent. In family 2-4, affected individuals (born to unrelated parents) exhibited very similar clinical features to the subject in family 1. The age of onset was between 18 to 27 years of age.
Using previous research and various techniques the investigators were able to isolate genetic variations that were shared between the 5 affected individuals. They ultimately narrowed down their search to a section of DNA containing 2,960 base pairs, which encoded a protein of 465 amino acids.
They decided to call that protein PARKIN.
PARKIN Protein. Source: Wikipedia
How much of Parkinson’s is genetic?
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?
Recently a Parkinson’s-associated research report was published that was the first of many to come.
It involves the use of a genetic screening experiment that incorporates new technology called ‘CRISPR’.
There is an absolute tidal wave of CRISPR-related Parkinson’s disease research coming down the pipe towards us, and it is important that the Parkinson’s community understands how this powerful technology works.
In today’s post we will look at what the CRISPR technology is, how it works, what the new research report actually reported, and discuss how this technology can be used to tackle a condition like Parkinson’s.
Me and my mother (and yes, the image is to scale). Source: Openclipart
My mother: Simon, what is all this new ‘crispy’ research for Parkinson’s I heard about on the news?
Me: Huh? (I was not really paying attention to the question. Terrible to ignore one’s mother I know, but what can I say – I am the black sheep of the family)
My mother: Yes, something about ‘crispy’ and Parkinson’s.
Me: Oh! You mean CRISPR. Yeah, it’s really cool stuff.
My mother: Ok, well, can you explain it all to me please, this ‘Crisper’ stuff?
CRISPR.101 (or CRISPR for beginners)
In almost every cell of your body, there is a nucleus.
It is the command centre for the cell – issuing orders and receiving information concerning everything going on inside and around the cell. The nucleus is also a storage bank for the genetic blueprint that provides most of the instructions for making a physical copy of you. Those grand plans are kept bundled up in 23 pairs of chromosomes, which are densely coiled strings of a molecule called Deoxyribonucleic acid (or DNA).
DNA’s place inside the cell. Source: Kids.Britannica
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 biotech company called Voyager Therapeutics announced the results of their ongoing phase Ib clinical trial. The trial is investigating a gene therapy approach for people with severe Parkinson’s disease.
Gene therapy is a technique that involves inserting new DNA into a cell using a virus. The DNA can help the cell to produce beneficial proteins that go on help to alleviate the motor features of Parkinson’s disease.
In today’s post we will discuss gene therapy, review the new results and consider what they mean for the Parkinson’s community.
On 25th August 2012, the Voyager 1 space craft became the first human-made object to exit our solar system.
After 35 years and 11 billion miles of travel, this explorer has finally left the heliosphere (which encompasses our solar system) and it has crossed into the a region of space called the heliosheath – the boundary area that separates our solar system from interstellar space. Next stop on the journey of Voyager 1 will be the Oort cloud, which it will reach in approximately 300 years and it will take the tiny craft about 30,000 years to pass through it.
Where is Voyager 1? Source: Tampabay
Where is Voyager actually going? Well, eventually it will pass within 1 light year of a star called AC +79 3888 (also known as Gliese 445), which lies 17.6 light-years from Earth. It will achieve this goal on a Tuesday afternoon in 40,000 years time.
Gliese 445 (circled). Source: Wikipedia
Remarkably, the Gliese 445 star itself is actually coming towards us. Rather rapidly as well. It is approaching with a current velocity of 119 km/sec – nearly 7 times as fast as Voyager 1 is travelling towards it (the current speed of the craft is 38,000 mph (61,000 km/h).
Interesting, but what does any of that have to do with Parkinson’s disease?
Well closer to home, another ‘Voyager’ is also ‘going boldly where no man has gone before’ (sort of).
In this post I review recently published research describing interesting new gene therapy tools.
“Gene therapy” involved using genetics, rather than medication to treat conditions like Parkinson’s disease. By replacing faulty sections of DNA (or genes) or providing supportive genes, doctors hope to better treat certain diseases.
While we have ample knowledge regarding how to correct or insert genes effectively, the problem has always been delivery: getting the new DNA into the right types of cells while avoiding all of the other cells.
Now, researchers at the California Institute of Technology may be on the verge of solving this issue with specially engineered viruses.
Gene therapy. Source: yourgenome
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 become more and more exposed to 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.
An 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 disease – 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?
Some researchers believe there is. But we are not quite there yet with the application of that approach. Let me explain:
Our apologies to anyone who is squeamish about needles, but this is generally how most people get their seasonal flu vaccination.
Why are we talking about flu vaccines?
Because new research, published last week, suggests everyone should be going out and getting them in the hope of reducing our risk of Parkinson’s disease.
In today’s post we will review the research, exactly what a flu vaccine is, and how it relates to Parkinson’s disease.
Electron micro photograph of Influenza viruses. Source: Neuro-hemin
Long time readers of the SoPD blog will know that I have a particular fascination with theories regarding a viral or microbial role in the development of Parkinson’s disease (the ‘idiopathic’ – or arising spontaneously – variety at least).
Numerous reasons. For example:
- The targeted nature of the condition (why are only selective groups of cells are lost in the brain during the early stages of the condition?)
- The unexplained protein aggregation (eg. Lewy bodies; could they be a cellular defensive mechanism against viruses/microbes – Click here to read more on this idea)
- The asymmetry of the onset (why do tremors start on only one side of the body in most cases?)
And we have previously discussed research here on the website regarding possible associations between Parkinson’s disease and and various types of viruses (including Hepatitis C, Herpes Simplex, and Influenza).
Today we re-visit influenza as new research has been published on this topic.
What is influenza?
Influenza is a single-stranded, RNA virus of the orthomyxovirus family of viruses.
A schematic of the influenza virus. Source: CDC
It is the virus that causes ‘the flu’ – (runny nose, sore throat, coughing, and fatigue) – with the symptom arising two days after exposure and lasting for about a week. In humans, there are three types of influenza viruses, called Type A, Type B, and Type C. Type A are the most virulent in humans. The influenza virus behind both of the outbreaks in the 1918 pandemic was a Type A.
Schematic of Influenza virus. Source: Bcm
As the image above indicates, the influenza virus has a rounded shape, with “HA” (hemagglutinin) and “NA” (neuraminidases) proteins on the outer surface of the virus. The HA protein allows the virus to stick to the outer membrane of a cell. The virus can then infect the host cell and start the process of reproduction – making more copies of itself. The NA protein is required for the virus to exit the host cell and go on to infect other cells. Different influenza viruses have different combinations of hemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins, hence the numbering. For example, the Type A virus that caused the outbreaks in the 1918 pandemic was called H1N1.
Inside the influenza virus, there are there are eight pieces (segments) of RNA, hence the fact that influenza is an RNA virus. Some viruses have DNA while others have RNA. The 8 segments of RNA provide the information that is required for making new copies of the virus. Each of these segments provides the instructions for making one or more proteins of the virus (eg. segment 4 contains the instructions to make the HA protein).
The 8 segments of RNA in influenza. Source: URMC
The Influenza virus is one of the most changeable viruses we are aware of, which makes it such a tricky beast to deal with. Influenza uses two techniques to change over time. They are called shift and drift.
Shifting is an sudden change in the virus, which produces a completely new combination of the HA and NA proteins. Virus shift can take place when a person or animal is infected with two different subtypes of influenza. When new viral particles are generated inside the cell, there is a mix of both subtypes of virus which gives rise to an all new type of virus.
An example of viral shift. Source: Bcm
Drifting is the process of random genetic mutation. Gradual, continuous, spontaneous changes that occur when the virus makes small “mistakes” during the replication of its RNA. These mistakes can results in a slight difference in the HA or NA proteins, and although those changes are small, they can be significant enough that the human immune system will no longer recognise and attack the virus. This is why you can repeatedly get the flu and why flu vaccines must be administered each year to combat new forms of circulating influenza virus.
What is a flu jab exactly?
Seasonal flu vaccination is a treatment that is given each year to minimise the risk of being infected by an influenza virus.
The ‘seasonal’ part of the label refers to the fact that the flu vaccine changes each year. Most flu vaccines target three strains of the viruses (and are thus called ‘Trivalent flu vaccines’) which are selected each year based on data collected by various health organisations around the world.
The three chosen viruses for a particular year are traditionally injected into and grown in hens’ eggs, then harvested and purified before the viral particles are chemically deactivated. The three dead viruses are then pooled together and packaged as a vaccine. As you can see in the image below, the process of vaccine production is laborious and takes a full year:
The process of vaccine production. Source: Linkedin
By injecting people with the dead viruses from three different strains of the influenza virus, however, the immune system has the chance to build up a defence against those viruses without the risk of the individual becoming infected (the dead viruses in the vaccine can not infect cells).
Flu vaccines cause the immune system to produce antibodies which are used by the immune system to help defend the body against future attacks from viruses. These antibodies generally take about two weeks to develop in the body after vaccination.
As we have said most injected flu vaccines protect against three types of flu virus. Generally each of the three viruses is taken from the following strains:
- Influenza A (H1N1) – the strain of flu that caused the swine flu pandemic in 2009.
- Influenza A (H3N2) – a strain of flu that mainly affects the elderly and people at risk with long term health conditions. In 2016/17 the vaccine contains an A/Hong Kong/4801/2014 H3N2-like virus.
- Influenza B – a strain of flu that particularly affects children. In 2016/17 the vaccine contains B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus.
How effective are the vaccines?
Well, it really depends on which strains of influenza are going to affect the most people each year, and this can vary greatly. Overall, however, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (or CDC) suggests that the seasonal flu vaccine reduces the chance of getting sick by approximately 50% (Source). Not bad when you think about it.
Ok, so are there actually any connections between influenza and Parkinson’s disease?
This question is up for debate.
There are certainly some tentative associations between influenza and Parkinson’s disease. Early on, those connections were coincidental, but more recently research is suggesting that there could be a closer relationship.
Between January 1918 and December 1920 there were two outbreaks of an influenza virus during an event that became known as the 1918 flu pandemic. Approximately 500 million people across the globe were infected by the H1N1 influenza virus, and this resulted in 50 to 100 million deaths (basically 3-5% of the world’s population). Given that is occurred during World War 1, censors limited the media coverage of the pandemic in many countries in order to maintain morale. The Spanish media were not censored, however, and this is why the 1918 pandemic is often referred to as the ‘Spanish flu’.
1918 Spanish flu. Source: Chronicle
At the same time that H1N1 was causing havoc, a Romanian born neurologist named Constantin von Economo reported a number of unusual symptoms which were referred to as encephalitis lethargica (EL). This disease left victims in a statue-like condition, speechless and motionless.
Constantin von Economo. Source: Wikipedia
By 1926, EL had spread around the world, with nearly five million people being affected. Many of those who survived never returned to their pre-existing state of health. They were left frozen in an immobile state.
An individual with encephalitis lethargica. Source: Baillement
Historically, it was believed that EL was caused by the influenza virus from the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic. This was largely due to a temporal association (things happening at approximately the same time) and the finding of influenza antigens in some of the suffers of EL (Click here to read more about this).
And then there were also the observations of Dr Oliver Sacks:
Amazing guy! Dr Oliver Sacks. Source: Pensologosou
During the late 1960s, while employed as a neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital’s chronic-care facility in New York, Dr Sacks began working with a group of survivors of EL, who had been left immobile by the condition. He treated these individuals with L-dopa (the standard treatment for Parkinson’s disease now, but it was still experimental at the time) and he observed them become miraculously reanimated. The sufferers went from being completely motionless to suddenly active and mobile. Unfortunately the beneficial effects were very short lived.
You may be familiar with Dr Sack’s book about his experience of treating these patients. It is called ‘Awakenings’ and it was turned into a film starring actors Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.
Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in Awakenings. Source: Pinterest
More recent, postmortem analysis of the brains of EL patients found an absence of influenza RNA – click here for more on this), which has led many researchers to simply reject the association between influenza and EL. The evidence supporting this rejection, however, has also been questioned (click here to read more on this), leaving the question of an association between influenza and EL still open for debate.
I think it’s fair to say that we genuinely do not know what caused EL. Whether it was influenza or not is still be undecided.
Ok, so that was the coincidental evidence. Has there been a more direct connection between influenza and Parkinson’s disease?
This is Dr Richard J Smeyne:
He is a research faculty member in the Department of Developmental Neurobiology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (Memphis, Tennessee).
He has had a strong interest in what role viruses like influenza could be playing in the development of Parkinson’s disease, and his research group has published several interesting research reports on this topic, including:
Title: Highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza virus can enter the central nervous system and induce neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration.
Author: Jang H, Boltz D, Sturm-Ramirez K, Shepherd KR, Jiao Y, Webster R, Smeyne RJ.
Journal: Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Aug 18;106(33):14063-8.
PMID: 19667183 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
Dr Smeyne and his colleagues found in this study that when they injected the highly infectious A/Vietnam/1203/04 (H5N1) influenza virus into mice, the virus progressed from the periphery (outside the brain) into the brain itself, where it induced Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms.
The virus also caused a significant increase in the accumulation of the Parkinson’s disease-associated protein Alpha Synuclein. In addition, they witnessed the loss of dopamine neurons in the midbrain of the mice at 60 days after the infection – that cell loss resembling what is observed in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease.
Naturally this got the researchers rather excited!
In a follow up study on H5N1, however, these same researchers found that the Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms that they observed were actually only temporary:
Title: Inflammatory effects of highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza virus infection in the CNS of mice.
Authors: Jang H, Boltz D, McClaren J, Pani AK, Smeyne M, Korff A, Webster R, Smeyne RJ.
Journal: Journal for Neuroscience, 2012 Feb 1;32(5):1545-59.
PMID: 22302798 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
Dr Smeyne and colleagues repeated the 2009 study and had a closer look at what was happening to the dopamine neurons that were disappearing at 60 days post infection with the virus. When they looked at mice at 90 days post infection, they found that the number of dopamine neurons had returned to their normal number. This pattern was also observed in a region of the brain called the striatum, where the dopamine neurons release their dopamine. The levels of dopamine dropped soon after infection, but rose back to normal by 90 days post infection.
How does that work?
The results suggest that rather than developing new dopamine neurons in some kind of miraculous regenerative process, the dopamine neurons that were infected by the virus simply stopped producing dopamine while they dealt with the viral infection. Once the crisis was over, the dopamine neurons went back to life as normal. And because the researcher use chemicals in the production of dopamine to identify the dopamine neurons, they mistakenly thought that the cells had died when they couldn’t see those chemicals.
One interesting observation from the study was that H5N1 infection in mice induced a long-lasting inflammatory response in brain. The resident helper cells, called microglia, became activated by the infection, but remained active long after the dopamine neurons returned to normal service. The investigators speculated as to whether this activation may be a contributing factor in the development of neurodegenerative disorders.
And this is an interesting idea.
In a follow up study, they investigated this further by looking another influenza viruse that doesn’t actually infect cells in the brain:
Title: Induction of microglia activation after infection with the non-neurotropic A/CA/04/2009 H1N1 influenza virus.
Author: Sadasivan S, Zanin M, O’Brien K, Schultz-Cherry S, Smeyne RJ.
Journal: PLoS One. 2015 Apr 10;10(4):e0124047.
PMID: 25861024 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
In this study, a different type of influenza (H1N1) was tested, and while it did not infect the brain, it did cause the microglia cells to flare up and become activated. And again, this activation was sustained for a long period after the infection (at least 90 days).
This is a really interesting finding and relates to the idea of a “double hit” theory of Parkinson’s disease, in which the virus doesn’t necessarily cause Parkinson’s disease but may play a supplemental or distractionary role, grabbing the attention of the immune system while some other toxic agent is also attacking the body. Or perhaps simply weakening the immune system by forcing it to fight on multiple fronts. Alone the two would not cause as much damage, but in combination they could deal a terrible blow.
So what was the flu vaccine research published last week?
Again, from Dr Smeyne’s research group, this report looked whether the combination of an influenza virus infection plus a toxic agent gave a worse outcome than just the toxic agent by itself. An interesting idea for a study, but then the investigators threw in another component: what effect would a influenza vaccine have in such an experiment. And the results are interesting:
Title: Synergistic effects of influenza and 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP) can be eliminated by the use of influenza therapeutics: experimental evidence for the multi-hit hypothesis
Authors: Sadasivan S, Sharp B, Schultz-Cherry S, & Smeyne RJ
Journal: npj Parkinson’s Disease 3, 18
PMID: N/A (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
What the researchers found was that H1N1-infected mice that were treated with a neurotoxin (called MPTP – a toxin that specifically kills dopamine neurons) exhibit a 20% greater loss of dopamine neurons than mice that were treated with MPTP alone.
And this increase in dopamine neuron loss was completely eliminated by giving the mice the influenza vaccination. The researchers concluded that the results demonstrate that multiple insults (such as a viral infection and a toxin) can enhance the impact, and may even be significant in allowing an individual to cross a particular threshold for developing a disease.
It’s an intriguing idea.
Have epidemiologists (population data researchers) ever investigated a connection between Parkinson’s disease and influenza?
And yes they have:
Title: Parkinson’s disease or Parkinson symptoms following seasonal influenza.
Authors: Toovey S, Jick SS, Meier CR.
Journal: Influenza Other Respir Viruses. 2011 Sep;5(5):328-33.
PMID: 21668692 (This article is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
In this first study, the researcher used the UK‐based General Practice Research Database to perform a case–control analysis (that means they compare an affected population with an unaffected ‘control’ population. They identified individual cases who had developed an ‘incident diagnosis’ of Parkinson’s disease or Parkinson’s like symptoms between 1994 and March 2007. For each of those case files identified, they matched them with at least four age matched control case files for comparative sake.
Their analysis found that the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease was not associated with previous influenza infections. BUT, they did find that Influenza was associated with Parkinson’s‐like symptoms such as tremor, particularly in the month after an infection. One can’t help but wonder if the dopamine neurons stopped producing dopamine during that period while they dealt with the viral infection.
But of course, I’m only speculating here… and it’s not like there was a second study suggesting that there is actually an association between Parkinson’s disease and influenza.
A year after that first study, a second study was published:
Journal: Association of Parkinson’s disease with infections and occupational exposure to possible vectors.
Authors: Harris MA, Tsui JK, Marion SA, Shen H, Teschke K.
Journal: Movement Disorder. 2012 Aug;27(9):1111-7.
This second study reported that there is actually an association between Parkinson’s disease and influenza.
This investigation was also a case-control study, but it was based in British Columbia, Canada. The researchers recruited 403 individuals detected by their use of antiparkinsonian medications and matched them with 405 control subjects selected from the universal health insurance plan. Severe influenza was associated with Parkinson’s disease at an odds ratio of 2.01 (1 being no difference) and the range of the odds was 1.16-3.48. That’s pretty significant.
Interestingly, the effect is reduced when the reports of infection were restricted to those occurring within 10 years before diagnosis. This observation would suggest that early life infections may have more impact than previously thought.
Curiously, the researchers also found that exposure to certain animals (cats odds ration of 2.06; range 1.09-3.92) and cattle (2.23; range 1.22-4.09) was also associated with developing Parkinson’s disease.
Time to get rid of the pet cow.
Do any other neurodegenerative condition have associations with influenza?
In the limited literature search that we conducted, we only found reports dealing with influenza and Alzheimer’s disease.
Large studies suggest that Alzheimer’s is not associated with influenza (click here to read more on this). Interestingly, the Alzheimer’s associated protein beta amyloid has been shown to inhibit influenza A viruses (Click here to read that report), which may partly explain the lack of any association.
Influenza does have a mild association, however, with depression (Click here to see that report).
So what does it all mean?
A viral theory for Parkinson’s disease has existed since the great epidemic of 1918. Recent evidence points towards several viruses potentially having some involvement in the development of this neurodegenerative condition. And recent evidence suggests that influenza in particular could be particularly influential.
In 1938, Jonas Salk and Thomas Francis developed the first vaccine against flu viruses. It could be interesting for epidemiologists to go back and see if regular flu vaccination usage (if such data exists) reduces the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
But until such data is published, however, perhaps it would be wise to go and get a flu vaccine shot.
The banner for today’s post was sourced from the HuntingtonPost