Slowing or stopping Parkinson’s disease: Where are we?

If you read a lot about Parkinson’s disease, one term you’ll often see is “disease modification.” This bit of jargon has an important meaning — find a way to slow or stop the disease process, giving people with Parkinson’s more years with reduced symptoms or even staving them off entirely.

Developing treatments that can impede the Parkinson’s disease process would be a gamechanger for millions of people around the world. It could mean that, if caught early enough, perhaps the process could be slowed so much that symptoms may not appear until long after they would have without treatment. For someone further along in the disease process, a disease-modifying treatment could help keep symptoms from worsening.

Both these scenarios would mean one very important thing: improved quality of life for people with Parkinson’s.

How do we slow or stop Parkinson’s?

Existing medications for Parkinson’s can mitigate symptoms, but they don’t slow or stop progression. That’s why scientists are studying the host of factors that may contribute to Parkinson’s, such as:

  • Sluggish mitochondria: Mitochondria are important parts of our cells that process and manage energy. Recent research suggests that breakdowns in mitochondria also may cause breakdowns in the processes required to keep our cells healthy, such as clearing out cellular debris. As such, problems with mitochondria may play a role in the early stages of Parkinson’s. Supporting healthy mitochondrial function could help ensure cells continue to operate normally and make them more resistant to Parkinson’s.
  • Inflammation: Inflammation is a normal part of the immune system. Unfortunately, too much for too long can damage cells and cause problems. Scientists are investigating how inflammation, such as that caused by infections or exposure to things in our environment such as pesticides, may set the stage for Parkinson’s. Medications that control runaway immune responses may offer a chance to impede disease progression.
  • “Sticky” proteins: One of the main features of Parkinson’s disease is clumps of misshapen proteins that stick together in brain cells, where they interfere with healthy function and, ultimately, kill the cells. Scientists are searching for ways to prevent these proteins, called alpha-synuclein, from becoming misshapen to prevent them from sticking together. They also are investigating medications that may help clear out protein clumps, which could prevent cells from dying and slow disease progression.
  • Problems with lysosomes: Like mitochondria, lysosomes are important parts of cells. They are a kind of cellular clean-up crew, tasked with clearing out and recycling debris such as damaged or degraded parts of the cell. Problems with lysosomes may allow sticky alpha-synuclein proteins to gather and become dangerous. Treatments that fix lysosomes and restore their function could be a powerful way to interfere with disease progression.

Parkinson’s is a complex disease that requires an equally sophisticated approach to treatment. Understanding all these factors and how they interact provides important opportunities to develop therapies that may slow or stop progression.

VAI scientists and researchers around the world are hard at work doing just that. Along with working to understand the underpinnings of Parkinson’s in detail, they also are exploring new treatments that show potential to impede its advancement. Many of these potential treatments are actually medications developed or approved to treat other diseases, such as respiratory conditions and diabetes. Although that may sound surprising, this approach is possible because Parkinson’s shares many of the same underlying biological facets as these other diseases. In fact, many of these medications are already in clinical trials to evaluate their potential as Parkinson’s treatments. You can learn more about a major effort in this area, the Cure Parkinson’s–Van Andel Institute International Linked Clinical Trials program, by visiting vari.vai.org/linked-clinical-trials.

Thanks to advances in research and the dedicated support and input from the Parkinson’s community, we are closer than ever before to developing treatments to slow or stop progression.

Want to learn more about ongoing efforts to find disease modifying therapies? This year’s Grand Challenges in Parkinson’s Disease scientific symposium and parallel Rallying to the Challenge meeting for people with Parkinson’s and advocates will focus on the search for these game-changing treatments. Registration opens in mid-April. Learn more at grandchallengesinpd.org.