Parkinson's disease affects an estimated 10 million people worldwide. But, there is no known treatment that can cure or slow down the disease. Therefore, the news that scientists from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) and McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School in the United States have found a potential treatment for Parkinson’s disease is particularly heartening. Reports reveal that scientists are positive that an existing anti-malaria drug could be useful in the treatment of this disease. This groundbreaking research was published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) online, a prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system is characterized by a loss of control of motor movements, such as the ability to move hands, arms, and legs. In Singapore, it is one of the most common neurodegenerative conditions that affects three out of every 1,000 persons aged 50 years and above. Since, the population in Singapore is aging, cases of neurodegenerative diseases are very likely to rise.
Professor Kwang-Soo Kim from McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School in the United States and Associate Professor Yoon Ho Sup from NTU’s School of Biological Sciences partnered together for this multi-year research project. The researchers had discovered that by activating Nurr1, a class of proteins found in the brain, the brain’s ability to generate dopamine neurons is protected.
Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy was used by the scientists to identify the compounds which could bind and activate Nurr1 in the brain. We all know dopamine as the chemical in the brain that generates good and pleasurable feelings. In addition to that it is also an important neurotransmitter that affects motor control and movement of muscles in the body. When a person is affected with Parkinson's disease, the production of dopamine is disrupted and it causes progressive loss of motor control.
In their lab experiments, scientists found that when Nurr1 was activated in rats which had Parkinson's disease, there was a marked improvement in their behaviour and they showed no signs of suffering from the disease. Associate Professor Yoon said the team had screened about 1000 FDA-approved drugs before they found two anti-malaria drugs which showed results – Chloroquine and Amodiaquine.
Associate Professor Yoon, an expert in drug discovery and design opined that their discovery brings hope for the millions of people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. These drugs that they have found to have worked in the laboratory tests have already been used to treat malaria in patients for decades. He said that their research also shows that existing drugs can be repurposed to treat other diseases and once several potential drugs are found, they can be redesigned to make them more effective in combating their targeted diseases while reducing the side effects.
Professor Kwang-Soo Kim, a leading expert in Parkinson’s disease, said that presently the dopamine levels in patients are replenished through medication or by using a surgical method to do deep brain stimulation using electric currents. These treatments do address the patient’s symptoms, such as to improve mobility functions in the early stages of the disease to a certain extent, but the treatments are not effective in slowing down or stopping the disease process.
There have been several scientific evidences which have suggested the role Nurr1 can play in treating Parkinson's disease. Even though efforts have been put by pharmaceutical companies and researchers, no breakthrough development happened until now. Both Chloroquine and Amodiaquine are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and are used treat malaria infections. They are also looking forward to design better drugs for the disease by modifying Chloroquine and Amodiaquine.
For further research, the scientists are now looking into studying more drugs which can halt and reverse the onset of Parkinson’s disease.
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