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Our research achievements so far

Our research has led to major discoveries and improvements for people living with Parkinson's - but we still urgently need to do more. 

Scientific discoveries

Researchers like Professor John Hardy have uncovered crucial clues to the causes of Parkinson's - including major genetic discoveries.

These are the foundations for developing new treatments to slow, stop or reverse the condition.

Key discoveries

Oxidative stress

In the late 1980s, scientists studying donated brain tissue found evidence that nerve cells are damaged by oxidative stress in Parkinson's.

Oxidative stress happens when there are too many damaging molecules called free radicals inside our bodies. Our bodies constantly produce free radicals and unchecked, these molecules can cause damage to our cells and tissues.

Oxidative stress is now believed to play a key role in the death of brain cells in Parkinson’s and drugs that can reduce this stress are being developed.

Problems with energy production

Around the same time, our research revealed that the brains of people with Parkinson’s also have problems with tiny energy-producing batteries called mitochondria.

Every cell in our body has mitochondria, which make energy to keep cells alive. When they stop working properly, the cells get sick and die.

Key genes

The study of genes has provided a vital window into understanding Parkinson’s. Scientists have found several genes that are involved in the condition, and two of the most important were discovered by our researchers.

In 2004, our research team found the PINK1 gene which leads to a rare form of inherited Parkinson’s. Shortly afterwards we, along with colleagues from the USA, uncovered another gene called LRRK2.

These genes appear to be important for everyone and keep the nerve cells working smoothly. There are now new treatments being developed that directly target the problems caused by these genetic variations.

Developing treatments

We've supported researchers like Professor Roger Barker who have pioneered the development of new treatments and therapies for Parkinson's.

Towards better treatments

Stem cells

We've invested millions in cutting-edge stem cell research, which has advanced our understanding of how stem cells could be used to treat Parkinson's directly, and also as a tool for testing and developing other new treatments. 

In the early 1990s, we helped fund early cell transplantation trials in a small group of people with Parkinson’s.

Overall, the results were inconsistent but some people experienced significant improvements that have helped lead to the tranplantation trials underway today. 

Identifying drugs that can be repurposed

We're taking the fastest route to better treatments by tracking down drugs that are already approved for other conditions and have untapped potential for treating Parkinson's.

Our scientists have already identified the potential of drugs used to treat diabetes, liver problems and respiratory conditions for treating Parkinson's.

By finding these drugs and moving them rapidly into clinical trials we'll make them available for people with Parkinson's much more quickly, easily and cheaply.

Clinical trials

We are proud to have supported a groundbreaking clinical trial led by Dr Alan Whone to test whether an experimental treatment called GDNF can slow, stop or reverse Parkinson’s - something no current treatment can do.

Major trials

Glial cell-line derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF)

GDNF (or glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor) is a special protein that is naturally produced inside the brain and supports the survival of many types of brain cells – including the cells lost in Parkinson's.

We supported the first exploratory clinical trials of GDNF in people with Parkinson's which showed encouraging signs of benefit.

Now, well over a decade later we have again invested in this promising experimental treatment in a further clinical trial.

Preventing falls

In 2016, results from a trial funded by the charity showed that a commonly prescribed dementia drug could help to prevent falls for people with Parkinson's and improve quality of life.

Follow-up trials are now being planned and if successful, this medication could become the first approved drug treatment for balance and falls.

Approved treatments

Our research has led to improved treatments and care for people living with Parkinson's today.

Changing lives

Drug treatments

In 1977, we supported some of the first clinical trials of the drug selegiline, which helped show that it can help levodopa work for longer, and minimises side effects.

In 1988, we supported clinical trials of the dopamine agonist drug treatment apomorphine.

Both of these drug treatments are now widely used, in combination with other therapies, to help manage Parkinson's symptoms.

Deep brain stimulation

Parkinson's UK collaborated with the Medical Research Council to carry out a ten-year study looking at the long-term benefits of deep brain stimulation (DBS) in over 350 people with Parkinson's.

The findings showed that for those suitable for this therapy, DBS is safe, improves quality of life and is more effective than continuing with medication alone.

The evidence provided by this major study has helped make this important therapy available to people with Parkinson's across the UK.

Improving diagnosis

At present, there is no definitive test for Parkinson’s. Instead, specialists make a diagnosis using the UK Parkinson's Disease Society Brain Bank Criteria.

The Criteria was developed by research supported by the charity in the late 1980s and it is still used by specialists around the world to diagnose the condition.

Our research has also helped develop modern brain imaging techniques that are used to clarify uncertain diagnoses. Our research helped show that changes in the brain could be identified by giving people a mildly radioactive form of the drug levodopa and then scanning their brains. 

Research conference Sheffield

Get involved

Everything we do is driven by people affected by Parkinson's. That's why we're striving for new and better treatments - in years, not decades.

Find out how you can get involved.

Find out more