Parkinson’s drug shows promise

Did you know that proteins are linked to the onset of Parkinson’s disease? They are, and a new drug targeting them could slow the progression of the debilitating disease.

We often think of protein as being good for our health, and understandably so. The media bombards us with healthy foods that are high in protein. Protein shakes and supplements dominate ‘health’ sections of supermarkets.

But two new pieces of research highlight the good and the harm proteins can do. It all depends on what the protein is, how much of it there is, and where it’s located.

YourLifeChoices this week highlighted the good protein can do in our story about new cancer research. However, the downside of proteins comes into focus when we look at various diseases that can affect us as we get older.

Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are linked to the abnormal build-up of proteins in and around brain cells. So too is the focus of this article: Parkinson’s disease.

The general scientific consensus has long been that the underlying cause of Parkinson’s is the accumulation of a particular protein. The protein recognised as the culprit is called alpha-synuclein, and its ‘misfolded’ nature is thought to be to blame.

A build-up of alpha-synuclein leads to the loss of neurons that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, which assists motor control. So, slowing or preventing this build-up will likely play a key role in slowing the progression of Parkinson’s.

The good news is, researchers have developed a drug which appears to do just that. 

Parkinson’s disease – a brief explainer

Many of us are aware of the more common symptoms of Parkinson’s – tremors, muscle stiffness, slow movement and posture changes. But what is causing these changes? The answer to this lies in dopamine, the chemical we usually associate with mood. Higher levels of dopamine generally align with better moods. Lower levels are linked to depression.

As it turns out, a low level of dopamine affects not just our mood but our movement, too. This effect produces what we know as Parkinson’s disease. The disease generally affects people around the age of 65, but can also affect younger people, even those under 45.

A team at Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche have made it their aim to combat the build-up of alpha-synuclein. To that end, they have formulated a drug called prasinezumab which, in trials, has produced very promising results.

Led by Dr Gennaro Pagano, the team recruited 316 people who were thought to have early-stage Parkinson’s disease. These were split into two groups, with 105 receiving intravenous infusions of a placebo. The other 211 had infusions of either a high or low dose of prasinezumab every four weeks over one year.

It was thought that prasinezumab, an antibody designed to bind to aggregated clumps of alpha-synuclein in dopamine-producing neurons, would help.

However, early analysis of the results was less than promising. Initial interpretations of the results suggested that the antibody had no meaningful impact. But upon further analysis, the team realised prasinezumab may be effective among the trial participants with more severe Parkinson’s.

When the team homed in on more severely affected patients, they found a promising trend. Compared with taking a placebo, prasinezumab significantly reduced the rate at which participants’ motor symptoms worsened over the year-long period.

How good is this good news?

While the signs are certainly encouraging, the results of the prasinezumab trial should be tempered by healthy amounts of caution. That’s not to say the drug won’t eventually prove a valuable treatment for Parkinson’s, but further research is needed.

Even Dr Pagano himself acknowledged this need. He said it wasn’t possible to assess exactly what was happening in any of the participants’ brains because the researchers lacked a biomarker that would have enabled them to monitor how their levels of misfolded alpha-synuclein may be changing.

University of Florida Health’s Vinata Vedam-Mai echoed this sentiment. She said the study’s limitation is that it didn’t assess whether alpha-synuclein was being cleared from the brain. Answering that question will require further research and longer-term data. 

The good news is that no serious adverse events took place in the latest trial. This opens the way for further research, meaning prasinezumab could one day play an important role in treating Parkinson’s.

Do you or someone close to you have Parkinson’s disease? Does research such as this give you hope for the future? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Implant lets Parkinson’s sufferer walk again

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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