Parkinson’s disease is a debilitating illness that affects 7 to 10 million people worldwide. Not only does it completely change the lives of its sufferers, damaging their nerve cells, brain function, and cognition, it also devastates the family and loved ones of those with the disease. Parkinson’s disease was first discovered in 1817 by James Parkinson, and back then it was known as shaking palsy. In the nearly 200 years since its discovery, the medical community has gained insight into how the disease works and how it develops. However, no cure has been found.
For years scientists have tried to get a better understanding of Parkinson’s disease while coming up with treatments and medications to try to treat the symptoms of sufferers. The tricky part is that Parkinson’s disease affects people differently and its severity and causes differ from person to person, making nailing down a cure all the more difficult. Fortunately, a number of important breakthroughs have been made that could lead to treatments that slow down the disease’s progression or prevent it entirely. Here are five medical advancements that may help slow Parkinson’s disease.
1. Neuron Injection
Neuron injection is a hopeful treatment for Parkinson’s that was developed by bioengineers at Stanford and Rutgers universities. This is essentially how the process works: stem cells taken from adult tissue are converted into scaffolds of fibers, and those healthy fibers would then replace damaged cells. The process has been tried on mice, and researchers found positive results. Not only did the mice survive, they thrived after being treated. It is estimated that it will take at least ten years for neuron injection to be given the green light for human trials.
Part of what makes Parkinson’s disease so hard to combat is that it takes over the brain’s nerve cells, which are vital for humans to function and be healthy. If neuron injection is able to work in humans, it will be a major step towards finding a cure for Parkinson’s and would drastically slow down the illness’s progression. In addition to Parkinson’s, neuron injection therapies may help those suffering with other brain disorders and injuries such as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis.
Duopa, formally known as carbidopa/levodopa enteral suspension, is used to treat the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s and slow its progression. Though it is a drug, it has to be administered through the small intestine, which requires surgery to insert a tube for the drug to be delivered to the body. The major benefit of using Duopa is that it has the same ingredients of oral medicines used to treat Parkinson’s disease symptoms, but it is better absorbed by the body and reduces lags between doses, which are known as off-times. When patients who aren’t taking non-selective monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors get to the point where they’re required to take very frequent or high doses of medication, Duopa is a good alternative.
3. Deep Brain Stimulation
Deep brain stimulation is another surgical option to slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease, and it is particularly effective at treating tremors, stiffness, mobility issues, and slowed movement. A small device called a neurostimulator is surgically implanted into the patient’s brain and it delivers targeted electrical signals, typically to parts of the globus pallidus, thalamus, or subthalamic nucleus. In this way, the neurostimulator works for the brain similarly to how a pacemaker works for the heart.
Rather than damaging healthy brain tissue and nerve cells, deep brain stimulation blocks the brain’s electrical signals to the areas that cause Parkinson’s disease symptoms. Currently, deep brain stimulation is only available for Parkinson’s disease patients who have experienced little to no success controlling their symptoms with medications. In addition, this treatment often enables patients to significantly lower their prescribed dosages and avoid side effects related to long term use of certain Parkinson’s disease medications.
4. LRRK2 Kinase Inhibitors
After studying a highly detailed model for Parkinson’s disease, scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham have discovered a neuron interaction that is key to the progression of Parkinson’s disease. According to their research, the key to combating the illness may be blocking this interaction. The culprit is an abnormal LRRK2 kinase enzyme, which is the most common genetic link and cause of Parkinson’s disease. When the enzyme’s processes are blocked nerve damage is notably slowed down, as are the hallmark symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Developing LRRK2 kinase inhibiting drugs can prevent the enzyme from destroying more nerve cells and slow down the development of Parkinson’s disease symptoms. The great news is that this research backs the continued development of two drugs that work by blocking LRRK2 kinase enzymes, meaning the treatments may be available to patients much sooner.
5. c-Abl Blockers
One of the latest and most exciting advancements in Parkinson’s disease research is the discovery of a protein that, when inhibited, can slow or even stop the progression of the illness. That protein is called c-Abl. When studied in healthy mice, increased c-Abl production lead to the development of Parkinson’s disease. In humans, c-Abl combines with another protein to form clumps called Lewy bodies, which destroy brain cells and negatively affect the brain’s control of motor functions, leading to Parkinson’s disease symptoms.
If c-Abl activity is controlled or blocked, Parkinson’s disease can potentially be stopped. A drug for humans that could effectively act as a c-Abl blocker would be a huge step towards finding a cure and benefit the lives of millions of Parkinson’s disease suffers. The newly discovered c-Abl interaction may also lead to the development of a marker to gauge the severity of Parkinson’s disease — currently, there is no marker, which hinders the search for new treatments.
What makes this discovery more incredible is that there’s already an FDA approved drug available to leukemia patients that acts as a c-Abl inhibitor. Research has now turned to confirming how well this drug works to prevent and control Parkinson’s disease symptoms so it can be approved for patients suffering from the illness.