In 2016 the number of individuals that suffer from the degenerative brain disease Parkinson’s hit 6.1 million. In 1990 the total was 2.5 million, marking an alarming rise of almost 150% in just over 25 years. While the global population has risen over that period, explaining part of the rise in numbers affected by Parkinson’s Disease, its instance has also significantly increased.
Currently, one in 350 Brits suffers from the disease but Parkinson’s UK research forecasts that to rise by almost 18% by 2025. The rise in numbers of Parkinson’s sufferers is put mainly down an older population more often surviving other conditions that would have, in the past, killed them off before the onset of the disease, which is most commonly found in the over-50s.
However, the latest biotechnology breakthroughs are providing hope for many sufferers with leading researchers confident that the ‘key’ to a Parkinson’s cure is as little as five years away. Several clinical trials launched this year, with more to come in 2019. While it is unlikely a single medication will provide the silver bullet for curing Parkinson’s, specialists believe that it is highly likely that some of the clinical trials ongoing and due to commence will bear fruit. It is believed that new biotech-based treatments targeting different symptoms of the disease, which include tremors, muscle stiffness, problems with balance and depression and anxiety, will combine to provide an effective cure.
Parkinson’s symptoms are caused by a gradual dying off of brain cells leading to a loss of dopamine, the biological chemical vital to our control of movement. While not directly fatal, Parkinson’s sufferers can eventually become severely disabled and suffer from related problems such as problems swallowing or the contraction of infections that prove fatal to a weakened body. Current medication is limited to controlling symptoms and can have serious side effects as well as their effectiveness tailing off over time.
Efforts to find a cure for Parkinson’s are focused on how to stop its progression, rejuvenate remaining brain cells and stimulating the growth of replacements for those which have died. The cure expected imminently is expected to combine different treatments addressing each of these three main problems. The first is medication it is hoped will halt the spread of the protein alpha-synuclei. Described as a ‘rogue’ protein, it clumps together in Parkinson’s sufferers, before attacking and killing off brain cells. For the second, clinical trials are taking place involving cholinesterase inhibitor (ChEi) drugs, which reduce unsteadiness and improve concentration.
The hardest piece of jigsaw to find was always going the replacement of brain cells already killed off by the disease. However, an exciting area of biotech research, cell replacement therapy (CRT), is thought to be on the verge of major breakthroughs towards commercialisation. It uses stem cells to grow dopamine cells then transplanted directly into the brain. Human CRT trials have already started in the U.S., Australia and Japan and European trials carried out by a cooperation between Cambridge University and the University of Lund in Sweden will begin before the end of this year.
Cambridge-based consultant neurologist Professor Roger Barker, who will lead the European trials explains:
“The idea behind cell replacement therapies is to literally transplant the cells into the brain to replace those which have been lost.
“If the dopamine cell-based therapies work in the way we expect, then I would be surprised if they’re not coming into clinic as a standard therapy in five to ten years’ time. While it’s not a cure, it would transform the treatment of Parkinson’s.”
Professor Barker urges caution amongst sufferers of Parkinson when it comes to building up hopes of an effective cure that combines CRT and other treatments as failure of current and impending clinical trials could set the process back. But there is plenty of optimism ongoing trials will conclude successfully. If that proves to be the case it will be, as Professor Barker puts it ‘Christmas Day’, for those with Parkinson’s now, or who contract it in the future.