Studies of health and conditions such as Parkinson’s disease (PD) have only recently begun to explore the link between genes, the environment and behavior. So, the major challenge facing biomedical researchers is determining exactly how genes and environmental agents interact to influence health.
About one million Americans suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative brain disorder.
Studies have shown that the environmental impact of pesticides can increase an individual’s susceptibility to Parkinson’s disease. At the same time, individuals who are more physically active appear to have a lower risk for Parkinson’s.
About one million Americans suffer from PD, a neurodegenerative brain disorder in which the brain slowly stops producing a neurotransmitter called dopamine. With less and less dopamine, a person begins to lose their ability to regulate their movements.
Genetic Advances Identify Risk Factors
There is no cure for Parkinson’s, but Laurie Ozelius, PhD, associate neuroscientist at the Massachusetts General Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases (MIND) and Michael Schwarzschild, MD, PhD, director of the Molecular Neurobiology Lab at MIND, are using cutting-edge techniques to better understand different genetic and environmental PD risk factors as a step toward finding therapies that might slow or prevent the disease.
By grouping genetically similar patients together, the team can better identify environmental factors that increase or reduce a person’s risk for PD. These insights can lead to improved clinical trial designs as well as to better predictions of when PD will begin. A better understanding of the interplay between PD genes and environmental factors will narrow down the search for effective therapies.
Even as researchers search for a cure for PD, the Schwarzschild lab has determined that caffeine and urate (aka uric acid, a natural antioxident but better known for causing gout) have protective properties in laboratory models of Parkinson’s.
This research has shown that caffeine and urate can protect against oxidative damage and the loss of dopamine-producing cells in mice.
Clinical Trial Offers Encouraging Results
This progress in the lab has led to a clinical trial entitled Safety of Urate Elevation in Parkinson’s disease in phase 3 (SURE-PD3), funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Michael J. Fox Foundation. The study is designed to determine whether raising levels of urate in patients with PD can slow the progression of the disease.
Approximately 300 patients with early PD have been enrolled at 60 centers across the United States in a trial that will run through 2020.
Muscle Control a Common Symptom
Parkinson’s is just one of a range of neurological diseases that share common mechanisms of brain cell dysfunction and degeneration, and are under investigation at MIND. Researchers in MIND laboratories work closely together to achieve the most promising results. Ongoing fruitful collaborations within MIND include those exploring connections between Parkinson’s and other diseases like Alzheimer’s (Albers, Gomperts and Hyman Labs), melanoma (Chen Lab), dystonia (Ozelius and Sharma Labs), ALS (Lagier-Tourenne, Sadri-Vakili, Schwarzschild and Wainger Labs) and Huntington’s disease (DiFiglia and Kegel-Gleason Labs).
The ability to advance these investigations to clinical trials involving patients relies heavily on philanthropy. Support for these projects in related areas will speed the efforts of all these investigators to find a cure for Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
To learn more about how you can support Parkinson’s disease research at Mass General, please contact us.
MIND: Collaborating for a Cure
The MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease (MIND) is committed to finding treatments and cures to improve the lives of patients with neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Founded in 2001, MIND unites scientists and physician-scientists across disciplines with the common goal of translating laboratory findings into therapies that can reach patients in the clinic. Researchers in MIND laboratories work collaboratively to achieve the most promising results.
To learn more about MIND, please visit our website.