A major lead for potential new treatments for Parkinson´s has been discovered by researchers at the University of Sheffield´s Department of Biomedical Science.
The study, primarily funded by the Parkinson´s Disease Society and published online by the journal Nature Neuroscience this week, identified a pathway inside nerve cells that could be stimulated to protect the dying cells affected by Parkinson´s.
Parkinson's is caused by the progressive death of specific nerve cells inside the brain that produce dopamine - a chemical messenger that controls the co-ordination of movement.
Using both fruit fly models and skin cells from people with Parkinson´s, the researchers identified a common pathway inside the cells that can be stimulated to prevent cell death in inherited forms of the condition. Pathways are control systems which operate inside the cell that regulate all aspects of cell functions including determining whether they live or die. Finding new drugs that can interfere with these means that we could target these pathways and essentially halt, or even prevent, the death of the cells.
In the study the drug Rapamycin - used by some transplant patients to prevent immune rejection - was shown to protect cells against the damaging effects of two of the mutant genes that cause inherited forms of Parkinson´s.
Rapamycin is a potent immunosuppressant and comes with the serious risk of a weakened immune system, so is very unlikely to be used to treat Parkinson´s directly. However, investigating how this particular drug helps protects against cell death will help find more sophisticated ways to protect nerve cells without the unwanted side effects.
Dr Alex Whitworth, who led the research team in this study at the University of Sheffield, said: "Although Rapamycin is not a `wonder drug´ for treating Parkinson´s, our study does shows that the animal and human models that we used can be useful tool in the discovery of new drugs for directly treating the condition.
"Another exciting outcome of our study is that the positive effects were seen in both flies and human cells. This shows that even simple animal models do work in some cases, and that human cells grown in the lab may be a good method of screening for new anti-Parkinson´s drugs in the future."
Dr Kieran Breen, Director of Research and Development at the Parkinson´s Disease Society, said: "This is an exciting new development in the search for new and better treatments for Parkinson´s. Current treatments can only replace or mimic the effects of dopamine, rather than actually change the course of the condition.
"But the discovery of this pathway may be the key to developing new drugs that can slow or even halt the progressive loss of nerve cells in the brain. Effectively, this would halt the development of Parkinson´s in its tracks.
"At the Parkinson´s Disease Society we are passionate about finding a cure and better treatments for people with Parkinson´s and these new findings are a major step forward for this goal."