Brain cells under a microscope

Dr Patrick Lewis: The promise of genetic research for Parkinson's

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By Parkinson's UK research fellow Dr Patrick Lewis

The ultimate goal of carrying out research into Parkinson's is to develop new drugs that will make a difference to the lives of the millions of people around the world who are affected by this disorder.

The hope that we can develop treatments that will slow down or even halt Parkinson's is what drives charities like Parkinson's UK, and what motivates researchers (myself included) working in laboratories across the world.

Recent genetic discoveries have boosted the search for new and better treatments.

The challenge

There are a lot of challenges for researchers trying to develop new drugs for Parkinson's.

Perhaps the biggest is that we still do not really understand the changes in the brain that cause brain cells to die, dopamine levels to fall and the symptoms of Parkinson's to develop.

Without an understanding this process, we don't have clear idea of how to design new drugs that can interfere and stop it in its tracks.

Do our genes hold the key?

But recent genetic discoveries have boosted the search for new and better treatments.  

We now know that subtle changes in some genes - like GBA and LRRK2 - can increase risk of developing Parkinson's.

And these genetic changes have provided the new targets that many big drug companies have been waiting for to develop new drugs.

At the moment most of these new drugs are being developed and tested in the lab.

But there already drugs exciting new treatments being tried out in clinical trials – including a vaccine which targets 'alpha synuclein' – which have their roots in our genes.

Looking to the future

We can learn a lot from efforts to develop new drugs for other conditions - particularly Alzheimer's, where real progress is starting to be made.

Identifying the drugs that work quickly, and discarding those that don't just as quickly, is going to crucial so that we don’t waste time chasing up blind alleys.

There is still a lot of work to do, and many obstacles to overcome, but we - patients, researchers and clinicians - are beginning to see the progress towards experimental treatments that we are all so desperate for.