Scientists at Cambridge University have made a ‘vital step’ towards finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease.
Their research, published in Nature Communications, breaks new ground in understanding the role of a key protein called alpha-synuclein, which is present in the brain and plays a number of important roles, especially at synapses, small gaps between neurons, or nerve cells, that allow them to communicate effectively with each other.
The protein causes Parkinson’s disease when it behaves abnormally and forms clumps called Lewy bodies inside neurons causing them to work less effectively and eventually die.
Until now, scientists have not known how it functions normally, which has inhibited treatment.
“This study could unlock more information about this debilitating neurodegenerative disorder that can leave people unable to walk and talk,” Dr Giuliana Fusco, Research Fellow at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and lead author of the paper, said.
“If we want to cure Parkinson’s, first we need to understand the function of alpha-synuclein. This research is a vital step towards that goal.”
More than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson’s disease, including musician Ozzy Osbourne, comedian Sir Billy Connolly and actor Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed aged 29.
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The degenerative disease is the fastest growing neurological condition in the world. It has a variety of symptoms including tremors – particularly in the hands – gait and balance problems, slowness and extreme stiffness in the arms and legs.
There are treatments and drugs available to patients to help them manage the disease but nothing is available to reverse its effects.
“In order to intervene and correct [alpha-synuclein’s] behaviour, we first need to know what it does normally, so that when we correct its behaviour we don’t interfere with its normal behaviour,” Professor Michele Vendruscolo, University of Cambridge, told Sky News.
“Of course there are going to be many other steps of this type that are needed to eventually find a cure but this is a significant step forward in establishing the normal function of this protein.”
Anne-Marie Booth, a 52-year-old self-employed trainer from Stockport, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s five years ago.
Medication helps her to manage her symptoms, but sometimes even seemingly straightforward movements, like tying shoelaces, can be problematic.
“I have varying reactions to the condition every day,” she said.
“I’m quite stiff. I have a left-side tremor. I suffer from apathy and anxiety and all of those things whether they’re hidden symptoms or visible symptoms, can impact your daily life.”
The mother-of-two is all too aware of how devastating Parkinson’s can be in one’s later years, having seen its impact on her father. He died in 2013. News of the scientists’ breakthrough has offered her a beacon of hope.
“I saw the worst of the condition take away the best of my dad and that was very difficult emotionally to deal with it,” she told Sky News.
“It’s a one-way street that you don’t really want to go down. So it’s incredibly exciting to hear that new things are coming along.”
David Dexter, Associate Research director at Parkinson’s UK said: “It’s important that we keep funding this fundamental research into really getting down to the nitty-gritty about what causes Parkinson’s, so we can then design effective treatments to actually slow Parkinson’s for the first time.”